GILFORD — After hearing impassioned statements from rental property owners and neighbors affected by noise, trash and parking problems, the Gilford Planning Board voted 6-to-0 Wednesday not to advance its proposed ordinance changes on short-term rentals to town meeting.

Instead, in coming months, the board, town attorney and planning and land use department will hold discussions and work sessions to adjust vague or confusing language and respond to issues raised – which means revised short-term rental rules will wait another year for voters’ approval.  

“Fortunately, we’re not starting from scratch,” said John Ayer, the town’s director of planning and land use. “We’re working on refining some portions” to eliminate ambiguous language and address concerns voiced at the hearing, including by planning board members. “There were enough board members concerned that they want to talk about these things.”

Wednesday’s final public hearing on ordinance changes regarding short term rentals drew close to 100 attendees in person and online, most expressing ongoing and competing worries. The standing room-only session lasted for over two hours, with residents and owners arguing for and against the expanded code, citing problems with application, questions over whether the rules must be written to apply to long term rentals as well, and the rights and responsibilities of owners to rent and police their residential properties - without regulations or permit requirements that apply only to them.

Neighbors affected by ongoing abuses at short-term vacation rentals argued in favor of the revisions, claiming the need to act soon to curb late-night noise, overcrowding, parking, litter and garbage buildup that has worsened in the last year, eroding their privacy and quality of life.

It’s a problem playing out in municipalities across the Lakes Region, where the number of vacation rentals has ballooned in the wake of COVID-19, with some short-term rentals creating insidious conditions for neighbors who live beside properties that have become party houses. Many are owned by distant offsite landlords, and corporate entities that profit by renting them out online through platforms including AirBNB and VRBO. There are more than 70 short-term rentals in Gunstock Acres, where nearby full-time or weekend residents are beleaguered by ongoing conditions that wreak havoc with neighborhood safety, sanitation and peace.

“There are a lot of people out there who are clamoring for something to be done,” said Ayer.

“We’re worried about people being safe in rental units, and protecting residents from unpleasant conditions, including noise and trash,” said Selectman Chan Eddy, who serves on the planning board. “We don’t want to overload septic systems even for a week at a time.” Eddy said short-term rental issues have simmered for years, and town planning officials have met repeatedly to brainstorm stepped-up ordinances since March 2021. 

Gilford Police Lt. Dustin Parent said residents’ complaints of trash and noise have increased considerably in the last year.

“Suddenly there’s been a major change,” said Planning Board Chair Wayne Hall.  “We’re trying to give the best quality of life for everyone here. It’s trying to get a balance. We’re trying to protect people who are good neighbors, who do keep things in good working order.”

Several owners who rent out their properties short-term said said these problems are community-wide, not confined to homeowners, landlords or renters, and the ordinances should address specific problems, not distinct populations or property categories. 

“They are aimed more at absentee ownership,” said Eddy. “Owners are called. What do they do? Nothing. Part of this is to make absentee owners more responsible.” The changes are not burdensome, he said. “They’re asking only what any homeowner would do.”

The ordinance changes proposed required absentee landlords to obtain conditional use permits for short-term rentals, and provide site plans, floor plans, emergency contact information, property managers who can be on-site within an hour, secured trash storage and timely removal, adequate parking on site, occupancy based on septic system capacity and sleeping areas, and compliance with local and state safety codes verified by fire department inspections.  The permits could be renewed every three years, and revoked if there were ongoing violations or complaints. Permit costs and fines would be set by the Board of Selectmen.

Contrary to opinions circulating in the community, the future and legality of short-term rentals is not at stake, said Ayer. “Whether you call it a business or not, you can rent out your single-family home,” he said. The town’s attorney supports this private property right, and has worked to refine ordinance language that protects the peace and privacy of Gilford residents while holding rental property owners more accountable – which is the purpose, he said. The regulations in the works would not apply to Gilford residents who live at their properties for half the year or longer, or those who remain on site while renting out part of their homes.

At the same time, the town’s select board is crafting revised parking and noise ordinances, with input from the police department. The proposed noise regulations will be voted up or down at town meeting, while parking rule changes can be put in place by the selectmen.  

Voices at the hearing

Karen Landry of Gilford said she has cleaned vacation rentals for 20 years. She wonders why owners of vacation rentals aren’t looking these rules as valuable protection for their properties. “What can happen, will happen. One of the worse abuses is more people staying in the house than is allowed. With a bigger house, you have a bigger problem. These people create garbage that is beyond belief in a week. Everything they don’t eat they throw in the garbage,” she said.

It can pile up outside, uncollected and ravaged by animals that scatter the scraps. One Gilford resident said she has hired a pest control company to eliminate rats, and wishes there were impact fees for the people who are renting.

Deb Sullivan, who lives on Tate Road, said a nearby short-term rental owned by an LLC or limited liability corporation left a dumpster overflowing for weeks. “You have no idea of the amount of trash that gets thrown out in bags at the end of the street. The overcrowding, noise and traffic is all of our issue,” she said. “No one’s trying to ban short-term rentals. All we are doing is trying to co-exist. This is not an onerous process,” said Sullivan, addressing the planning board. “You’re asking (property owners) to post regulations, get an application and abide by the rules. It’s making sure you’re a good neighbor living beside people who have to work.”

Pam Fink, a resident of Gunstock Acres, spoke in favor of adopting rules, and hoped both sides could meet in the middle to strike a balance. “All the town is asking is that you do it in a reasonable way so residents aren’t in turmoil and upset most of the time. I think we all agree there’s a problem. The next step is to work collaboratively,” she said. “The number of people coming into this community has doubled or tripled” in recent years. “It’s just trying to exist with each other.”

One vacation property owner, a business consultant who lives in Manchester with his wife, who is a physician in southern New Hampshire, said, “We do make money off the rentals for sure. But so do other people. We are taxpayers. I like to think we’re good neighbors.” He said they pay roughly $5,000 a year in occupancy taxes to the state – roughly $600 per rental week, which comes back to the town. He said his objection is not to the rules, but to the conditional use permit requirement, which functions to filter out applicants. “It’s a filter of how much of these they don’t want,” he said. “The filter is unilaterally decided by the planning board, one abutter and the fire department. I’m not willing to give these rights to the planning board.” He said the couple invested in vacation real estate instead in the stock market to fund their retirement.

A second-home owner who lives in Brookline said he objected to limits on occupancy based on septic system size, and the creation of rental specific rules. He said he posts his own requirements for guests and vacation renters. “If the laws that are there now are implemented properly, you can run any business,” he said. “It’s my problem what my home should look like and smell like. It’s my responsibility to flush it (the septic tank) out every six months or year. If something happens, it’s my problem.”

Ayer said the last time the town received a failed septic system report, “It was running down the side of the road to the next property.”  

Two police officers who live and work in North Andover, Massachusetts, but own vacation rentals here said the town needs to collect data to ensure that the problems are coming  from short-term rentals, and not from year-round residents who hold loud parties with lots of guests.

Carol McMullin of Brooklyn, New York, said the permit process and its requirements create unnecessary burdens and expenses for property owners who already pay higher-than-average taxes. “It sounds like I’m going to have to hire experts to draw things for me,” said McMullin, referring to the requirements for site and floor plans.

The hearing provided feedback Ayer wished had been expressed while planning officials were trying to come up with reasonable changes. “The good thing is it got everybody talking about it, with the input we wish we had over the last several months,” he said. It will be another year before retooled ordinances go before voters at town meeting.

In the meantime, legitimate concerns remain. “People who live near these places know they’re short term rentals. One fellow has AirBNBs on three sides of him,” said Eddy. “He says, ‘I don’t sleep.’”

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