WATERFORD — The Planning Commission on Wednesday began to draft short-term rental regulations.
They laid the foundation for a two-tiered approach, with a zoning permit requirement and an annual registration process.
Under the proposed regulations supported by the Planning Commission, STR owners would (1) have to obtain a conditional land use permit from the Development Review Board before operating and (2) pay a registration fee, perform a safety inspection, and submit tax and insurance documentation each year to obtain and maintain a town-issued STR license.
Those measures would give the town direct control over STR placement and rules enforcement.
Although Waterford has few short-term rentals, the Planning Commission agrees STR regulations are worth pursuing to protect residents and maintain the community’s character.
Waterford already has one problematic short-term rental, which prompted the Planning Commission to take action.
In addition, Planning Commission Chair Howard Remick said there is reason to believe that more short-term rentals are in development and that out-of-town speculators are purchasing Waterford properties for STR purposes.
“We normally have around 70 to 80 land transfers in a year. [This year] we’ve got double that. And we’ve got half a dozen to a dozen new houses that are in progress, which is a lot for a town this size,” Remick said, citing first-hand experience with market speculators, “I’ve gotten my eighth or ninth offer on vacant land from [buyers in] Ohio, Texas, California…”
The Planning Commission on Wednesday favored an arrangement where the Development Review Board would review conditional use applications, the Select Board would issue annual licenses and renewals, and the Zoning Administrator would handle enforcement of by-law conditions governing issues such as occupancy, parking, rubbish, permitted activities, and property management.
The Zoning Administrator could issue fines for violations and provide immediate oversight.
Until now, STR issues have been handled in Vermont Environmental Court, where cases can take years to resolve and are often withdrawn out of frustration.
“I’ve been on the [Planning Commission] for 30 years and we always had to deal with environmental court,” Remick said. “I’ve gone through it myself and it’s a joke. To get anything rectified in a timely manner, it does not happen. So people just get sick of it and drop it, and then it’s wild, wild west.”
While the Planning Commission wants to regulate STRs, they don’t want to ban them.
Commissioner Kim Willey said it was important to balance citizens’ welfare and property owners’ rights when crafting the ordinance and by-law.
“We can’t make it so difficult that people can’t recoup some income on their own home,” Willey said. “We have to look at both sides, we can’t be all against short-term rentals.”
Commissioners created the framework for STR regulations on Wednesday using language from Woodstock’s by-laws.
The framework will be handed to Zoning Administrator Chris Brimmer, who will create a custom by-law and ordinance for Waterford.
Once draft regulations are written, the Planning Commission and Select Board would host separate public hearings on the matter.
By-law changes would require voter approval and would probably not appear on the Town Meeting warning until 2024.
New Hampshire and Vermont property owners have increasingly converted homes, apartments and condos into lucrative STRs, defined as rentals available for stays of 30 days or less.
Some worry that STRs have contributed to a workforce housing shortage, squeezed families and young professionals out of town, and worsened noise, trash and traffic problems in residential neighborhoods.
There are approximately 1,500 short-term rentals in the 2,500 square mile region that runs between the I-91 and Route 3 corridors, from Franconia Notch and the Upper Valley to the Canadian border, according to industry analyst AirDNA.
STR oversight will remain a local issue for the time being.
In New Hampshire, efforts to pass statewide regulations stalled in the legislature earlier this year.
In Vermont, short-term rental operators must address fire safety considerations laid out by the State Fire Marshal, and STRs that accommodate nine or more guests must meet additional safety requirements.
Attempts to create a statewide rental registry were scrapped this spring under threat of veto by Gov. Phil Scott.