Towns’ dealings with Airbnb remain complex despite NH Supreme Court ruling

  • An Airbnb logo. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Waldo Swiegers Waldo Swiegers

Monitor staff
Published: 9/28/2019 10:09:27 PM

Communities wrestling with short-term rentals like Airbnb got some support Friday when the state Supreme Court upheld Portsmouth’s regulation of such rentals, but the ruling left a lot of questions up in the air.

“It’s going to be a big issue over the next few years as people figure out how this is all going to shake out,” said Cordell Johnson, an advocate with the New Hampshire Municipal Association.

Among the communities trying to figure it out is Canterbury, which earlier this year sent out cease-and-desist letters to five Airbnb rentals in town because short-term rentals are not allowed under most existing zoning ordinances. The situation is up in the air while selectmen and planning officials work to develop new rules and regulations.

“Canterbury is doing a really good job of putting together a quality product, but it’s complicated. We’re a small town, we don’t have much staff, the law is in flux – there are various interpretations of how to go forward, legally,” said Lucy Nichols, an alternate on the town planning board. Nichols owns a bed-and-breakfast and says she doesn’t vote on the rental issue because some might see a conflict.

She said the court ruling, as well as Airbnb’s decision to stop fighting regulations in Boston, may signal a shift.

“It looks to me that basically the law is starting to catch up with Airbnb, which means little towns like Canterbury have more secure footing,” she said.

On Friday, the state Supreme Court upheld Portsmouth’s ruling that a couple on Lincoln Avenue cannot rent out an adjacent house which they also own through sites like Airbnb. Although the ruling dealt with some very specific legal questions, including the definition of the word “transient,” it is likely to have ripple effects.

“The way the court wrote the opinion, I think it does support the broader proposition that municipalities can regulate short-term rentals,” said Johnson. However, he added, that status may not last.

“I am pretty confident that there’s going to be legislation trying to restrict municipalities’ ability to regulate short-term rentals,” he said, pointing to past efforts in the State House to pass such a law. “There probably will be an effort this coming year to restrict zoning authority over short-term rentals, which has happened in a few states. It wouldn’t surprise me if this decision gives some momentum to that effort – which, of course, we would oppose.”

One of the New Hampshire communities furthest along in trying to regulate Airbnb-type rentals is Laconia. Like many tourist destinations – Conway is another example – it has seen an explosion of online short-term rentals and is struggling to respond.

Scott Myers, Laconia city manager, said rentals have raised concern from neighbors about everything from loud parties to overnight parking on roads to visitors who put out the trash when it’s not the day for pickup. Another concern is that investors using homes as short-term rental properties could displace housing for residents.

“Nothing has been finalized yet. The City Council is trying to balance what’s good for the neighborhoods, good for housing stock, and what’s good for people who need this to supplement their income,” Myers said.

As an example of the complexities, he pointing to one common approach: limiting Airbnb rentals to owner-occupied buildings. While that could prevent out-of-town investors from profiting as they limit local housing, it could also interfere with a long New Hampshire tradition:

“People have been renting out camps to people they’ve known for decades,” Myers said.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

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