Our Opinion: Official jumped gun on Lenox Airbnb issue
After a weathering a bit of a scare, owners of short-term rental units in Lenox can once again rest easy. Earlier this week, Lenox's building commissioner, BJ Church, sent a letter to 56 residential property owners identified by a subscription monitoring service as offering their properties for rent on sites such as Airbnb, VRBO and others (Eagle, June 7). The letters, without advance warning or action by elected town leaders, ordered the owners to stop renting immediately or request that their properties be inspected for compliance with state safety laws.
On Friday, a chastened Ms. Church rescinded the offending epistle after the town received serious and understandable pushback from worried owners.
As a sworn public safety officer, Ms. Church enjoys autonomy to act as she pleases within the context of enforcing matters within her purview. That said, her heavy-handed letters and the discord they caused were completely uncalled for. Lenox had decided to shelve a proposed bylaw change that would regulate such rentals before the May town meeting would have adopted or rejected it, opting instead to submit it for the town's consideration at a meeting in November. Several months ago, Land Use Director/Town Planner Gwen Miller told The Eagle that the town would prefer to "get [a revised bylaw] right," first, and would be willing to wait until November in order to have the time to do so. In the meantime, the short-term rental industry in Lenox remains unregulated by the town.
While doing nothing that exceeded her statutory authority, Ms. Church blundered when she unilaterally heeded the legal advice included in an advisory letter by attorney Jeffrey Lynch, who happens to represent a group of traditional innkeepers and bed-and-breakfast operators. His clients chafe under safety regulations that they feel create a sloping playing field favoring short-term renters. Mr. Lynch's demand — that short-term rentals be treated the same as conventional lodging establishments by order of the state Department of Health — is at odds with the opinion of the town's counsel, Joel Bard, who holds that unlimited short-term rentals currently do not violate Lenox' bylaws. While While Mr. Lynch's motives in writing the letter were to ensure that short-term renters be subject to the same regulations as his clients, he nevertheless raised the valid point that some mechanism should be put in place to reassure visitors that no matter where they choose to stay, their lodging satisfies minimum health and safety requirements imposed by the state. To press home his case, Mr. Lynch even supplied Ms. Church with a list of so-called offenders that turned out to be not entirely accurate; some of her letters ended up in the mailboxes of seasonal renters (not at issue) and even a few of the aggrieved innkeepers and bed-and-breakfast operators, according to an attorney representing short-term renters. Ms. Church, rather than question Mr. Lynch's advice, particularly in light of its source — or following the conflicting opinion of Lenox' town counsel — instead chose to fire off her "Dear Lenox Property Owner" bombshells.
Ms. Church told The Eagle on Friday that "the process worked. I got a complaint and had to act on it." With all due respect to Ms. Church, the process did not work if it created unnecessary trauma for the citizens she is sworn to serve — and the rescinding was an admission as such.
The Lenox cease-and-desist letter debacle is a symptom of the tensions that have arisen over the protracted short-term rental controversy swirling around the town. The absence of a comprehensive bylaw regulating this sector has created a confusing muddle that invites unforced errors. While it is understandable that Lenox officials postponed a town vote in order to craft the best possible bylaw, the November town meeting that would adopt it can't come soon enough. In the interim, it would be best that no action on this complicated issue be taken — especially in haste.
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