LACONIA — Scott Palmer says that before he bought a condominium near Paugus Bay early this year, he checked with the city and the homeowners association and determined he could offer it for short-term, Airbnb-type rentals.
But on Monday night, the city's Zoning Board of Adjustment told the Windham man that he is not allowed to use his property that way. The panel made a similar ruling involving Kari Landino, of Dracut, Massachusetts, who owns a home at 110 Franklin St., along Opechee Bay.
Both decisions were unanimous.
This was the first test of a new policy adopted by the City Council in response to the increasing popularity of online rentals and complaints about a particular "party house."
The council decided in October that city zoning rules do not permit short-term rentals in most residential areas, and that this prohibition should be enforced when complaints are made.
The owner of the Old North Main Street house that prompted the ruling has since sold the property and the new owner doesn't intend to rent it out.
Meanwhile, Palmer, whose property is at 7 Rose Point, feels mistreated.
“I would love to appeal, as I feel it is my right, as a homeowner, to do anything (within legal rights) with my home,” he said in an email Tuesday. “Weekly rentals are allowed within the bylaws of our condo community.
“The Airbnb/VRBO culture is one that promotes collaboration between renters and homeowners (reviews take place almost 100% of the time) and tremendous friendships and connections take place and it's this type of collaboration that a town like Laconia should embrace.
“After all, we are the gateway to the entire Lakes Region and White Mountain National Forest and most of us that are vacation homeowners were introduced to this beautiful area through some type of initial visit. For these reasons, I am optimistic that the city and zoning board will reconsider and allow short term rentals in the future.”
Many short-term rentals operate throughout the city without a problem, but a single complaint over something like a noisy visitor now triggers an enforcement action. If the owner wants to continue renting out the property, he or she has to appear before the Zoning Board and request a variance.
Several of Palmer's neighbors appeared before the board Monday night to urge that he not be given a variance, but Palmer said the enforcement action began with one person.
“It is exceptionally unfair, especially since the single complaint was completely inaccurate,” he said. “The assumption made by a nosy neighbor was that renters were holding a party when in fact, we, the owners, were hosting members of our family. What is also unfair is that no due diligence was performed. The date, time and infraction were never investigated and the town made inaccurate assumptions. We had no other complaints all summer and in fact, my next door neighbor commented on how well behaved and respectful the renters were.”
The condominium is in the Bay Reach area of the gated Long Bay community.
John Crafts, who lives in the area and is vice president of the Bay Reach Association, said that although short-term rentals are allowed under association rules, there will be an attempt to change these rules.
“When Bay Reach was approved, it was approved as a very densely developed single-family residential community,” he said at the Zoning Board meeting.
Many houses are separated by only about 20 feet and many decks are near one another, he said.
Crafts said that short-term visitors cause problems. Such guests could jam pools and beaches, crowding out residents, he said.
“They are here for seven days of vacation and they’re going to enjoy it,” Crafts said. “They are on the deck every night having their beers. They’re not necessarily bad people. But with the noise from eight to 10 people, we couldn’t sit out on our deck and enjoy it – and that went on for a whole week.”
In the other case before the board, Landino said she does a good job of making sure visitors aren’t of the type to cause problems.
“I talk to all the people and make sure it is all family-based, no young kids, or party-type people,” she said. “I have had wonderful families that have treated my property well, have left my house in amazing condition and have been courteous to my neighbors.”
She said there was one visitor who was loud and police were called late in the summer.
“But I feel on the whole, it isn’t a problem,” she said. She also said a few other residences in the area are also used as short-term rentals.
Several of her neighbors felt her renters were a problem.
Doug Shaw, who lives next to the Landino property, said there have been problems with noise.
“On more than one occasion this past summer, I had to call or attempt to call the Landinos numerous times because of the loud noise and foul language coming from the people renting their house,” he said.
He said he once called the police at 2 a.m. to complain, and then heard an earful from one of the renters.
“A young woman was screaming profanities about why were the police called,” Shaw said.
“On another occasion the renters were partying in the back deck well after 12 and one of the neighbors was swearing very loudly. Mind you, those people had children in the house with them and also I have three children, all girls, ages 15, 14 and we have a foster daughter who is 4.”
He said that another time he looked into his neighbor's home through a window and saw a countertop full of liquor bottles.
The Zoning Board has a specific and stringent list of criteria for granting a variance, including that such action would not be counter to the public interest and that the values of the surrounding properties would not be diminished.
Neighbors argued that property values go down when short-term rentals proliferate, but those seeking the variances disputed that.
Another tough criteria for the applicant to meet is a showing that there is a so-called “hardship with this land.” The applicant needs to show a variance is warranted because of something that distinguishes the property from others nearby and makes it difficult to use.
Board member Orry Gibbs said she has stayed in short-term, Airbnb-type rentals while on vacation at the Outer Banks, off North Carolina.
“I feel as though people have the right to use their property,” she said.
“This is the trend, not just in condominiums but in neighborhoods everywhere, particularly in resort communities and basically Laconia does qualify as that.
“I think it is something that should not just be the purview of the zoning board to have to regulate. I think this is something the state needs to get involved in."
Alternate board member Michael DellaVecchia said short-term rentals are good for the local economy.
“I feel Weirs Beach went downhill because they let all the motels become condos and you stopped those people coming up on vacation every week, new people, spending money at the attractions and restaurants,” he said.
“Short-term rentals are an economic machine. It’s good for the area, but I wouldn’t want one next door to me.”
The audience at the board meeting then broke into applause.