Jim Kenyon: Hartland and its proposed Airbnb limits make strange bedfellows

Valley News Columnist
Published: 6/4/2022 9:55:24 PM
Modified: 6/4/2022 9:53:20 PM

For better or worse, Hartland has always been a town — unlike many of its neighbors — that didn’t see a need for zoning regulations.

As long they don’t run afoul of state land use and development laws or the town’s outdoor junk ordinance, Hartland folks are given a wide berth to do with their property as they see fit.

Which puts the Hartland Planning Commission’s proposed restrictions on short-term housing rentals — e.g. Airbnb — in direct conflict with the live-and-let-live mindset the town has long prided itself on.

The commission, whose nine members are appointed by the Selectboard, is recommending “short-term rental units not to exceed two bedrooms.”

It’s a solution in search of a problem.

Hartland is hardly a spring break mecca. Visitors are mostly urbanites looking for a quiet spot to stay while enjoying the area’s outdoor recreation offerings. Or maybe they just want to give their kids a chance to pet sheep.

The proposal is part of a revised Town Plan the commission has been working on in public sessions for nearly two years.

A town plan “doesn’t have the teeth of zoning,” but serves as a road map for future land development, Hartland Town Manager Dave Ormiston told me.

Public hearings held in January and April drew little interest, but I get why some residents think the commission is trying to pull a fast one. The part of the proposed plan that deals with short-term rentals is buried on page 95 of a 121-page document.

“This is a backdoor approach to zoning,” resident Heidi Marcotte said in a phone interview.

Marcotte, who grew up in Hartland, and her husband, Tom Wetmore, have turned the “old family home” that belonged to her mother into a short-term rental for $125 a night.

The retired couple makes enough to help cover property taxes and other expenses so they haven’t had to sell the house and can “keep it for our kids,” Marcotte said.

Since their Breeze Hill Cottage is only two bedrooms, Marcotte and Wetmore won’t be put out of business under the Planning Commission’s proposal.

Still, it doesn’t seem right.

“The way the (commission) has gone about it hasn’t been transparent,” said Marcotte, who learned about the proposal in mid-April through a resident’s post on the Hartland Listserv. “It undermines trust.”

If not for Todd Heyman, who moved to town a six years ago, the plan’s short-term rental restrictions might not have received any public scrutiny.

The day before the second public hearing, Heyman found a “working draft” of the proposed plan on the town website.

After posting on the town Listserv that it “sounded like a really big change” that no one was talking about, Heyman heard from a half-dozen residents.

Heyman, a lawyer-turned-farmer, and his wife, Suzy Kaplan, own Fat Sheep Farm on Best Road. Along with raising sheep and growing vegetables to sell at restaurants, they’ve built five cabins on the 60-acre parcel that rent for $200 a night or more.

Heyman has been the most vocal critic of the proposed two-bedroom limit, which won’t affect his business. He might even benefit from less competition.

But he doesn’t look at it that way. Hartland, which has about 3,500 residents, is like many small Vermont towns. It needs overnight visitors to help its smattering of restaurants and roadside markets stay afloat.

“They’re supported by out-of-state dollars,” Heyman said.

This isn’t the Planning Commission’s first attempt at thwarting a proposed expansion of business aimed at tourism in town, Heyman said.

In February 2020, the commission tried to use Act 250, the state’s 1970 land-use law, to block a hiker-focused lodge with an eight-bed bunk room and two tree houses from opening on Hartland Hill Road.

The commission told state environmental officials that the proposed lodge, known as Wise Pines, didn’t comply with the existing Town Plan, adopted in 2017, and would “undo the (commission’s) lifetime of orderly, rural-life planning.”

In rejecting the argument and approving the Wise Pines project, the state’s District 3 Environmental Commission found “inconsistencies” in Hartland’s 2017 plan, Ormiston said.

That’s probably why the Planning Commission is anxious to revise it, even though under state rules it’s good until 2025.

The commission, however, has run into a problem of its own doing.

In its February 2020 letter to Vermont environmental officials about Wise Pines, the commission stated that before beginning a Town Plan review, it sends out surveys to residents asking “what they want or don’t want” in the next plan.

The last survey was conducted in 2014.

By skipping the survey this time around, the commission has failed to live up to what it told state environmental officials in 2020, Heyman said.

Lacking survey results, the commission can’t assume that residents support limiting short-term rentals to houses with two or fewer bedrooms, he said.

“Changing the Town Plan without doing a survey doesn’t look good,” Heyman told commission members at Wednesday’s meeting. “I’m not saying it was done in bad faith; it just looks that way.”

Commission Chairman Charles Jeffries acknowledged not surveying residents was a mistake before adding that the 2022 Town Plan isn’t a fait accompli.

The Selectboard has final say, and it’s expected begin reviewing the commission’s work at its next meeting on Monday. Another public hearing is required before the board can vote.

Meanwhile, Heyman is among three residents who have applied to fill a commission vacancy. That decision rests with the Selectboard as well.

Before making the pick, I imagine the board will want to sleep on it, which is fine. Just not at an Airbnb with more than two bedrooms.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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