Woodstock hashes out where to go with homestays

  • Kat Gray, of Woodstock, Vt., makes one of the beds in her rental house in Woodstock on Thursday, July 11, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Kat Gray, of Woodstock, Vt., peers out of the indoor pool room while cleaning her rental home in Woodstock, Vt., on Thursday, July 11, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Guests add to the blackboard in Kat Gray's rental home in Woodstock, Vt., on Thursday, July 11, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 7/13/2019 10:24:24 PM

WOODSTOCK — Nancy Hoblin can’t help noticing all the vacationers coming and going to the rental property near her home on High Street in Woodstock. And she’s not thrilled about it.

“There are supposed to be six visits a year,” Hoblin said of the Woodstock Village ordinance that limits short-term rentals of 30 days or less to six occupancies per year in the village. “But there has been someone there virtually every single weekend and sometimes more than one party per weekend.”

Although Hoblin said the activity at her neighbor’s property has not been disruptive to her personally, that’s not the point.

“There are rules and the rules are not being enforced,” she said. “All (the landlord) is doing is raking in money.”

Jill Nixa, who lives across the street from Hoblin, echoed her neighbor’s complaint.

“If you want people coming six times a year or (more) for the foliage, that’s great,” said Nixa, referencing an exception to the limits for autumn leaf-peeping season. “The issue here is the town is not enforcing the regulations that exist.”

Short-term rentals are becoming a big-time issue in Woodstock, and potentially lucrative. As of Friday, Airbnb listed 86 places to rent in Woodstock, from a one-bedroom “cozy cabin” in the woods for $99 a night to five-bed/five-bath “chic farmhouse” for $618 a night. The median price for a night in Woodstock was about $280.

The historic village and tourist town is grappling with the growing trend of property owners who rent their homes and apartments to vacationers on a “short-term” basis, defined under local ordinances as rental periods of 30 days or less.

The trustees of the village of Woodstock recently adopted a 90-day moratorium on issuing new short-term rental permits while it considers crafting new ordinances, which haven’t been changed since the first rules were first adopted in 2003. At the same time, the Woodstock Selectboard plans to vote at its upcoming regular Tuesday meeting whether to extend its short-term rental rules to properties of more than 5 acres and properties in the forest zone, both of which currently are exempt.

Fueled by property owners turning to the convenience of online rental booking services like Airbnb, HomeAway and VRBO that make it easy and quick to rent their homes and apartments to vacationers, the rise of short-term rentals is being both credited as a valuable supplemental income for pressed homeowners and blamed for taking away sorely needed affordable housing for residents.

“We were starting to hear from people in town with short-term rentals as well as those people who don’t (and) who live near them. This will get a lot worse if we don’t figure out what was going on,” said Patrick Fultz, who owns the Sleep Woodstock motel on Route 4 outside of the village.

Fultz helped to put together a “task force” early this year that compiled a review of the current municipal and state regulations surrounding short-term rentals — referred to as STRs — and their impact on housing in the community. The task force’s report was aimed at the planning commission, which is reviewing short-term rental ordinances that haven’t been updated since the early 2000s, before digital platforms changed the homestay landscape.

The issue has been simmering within Woodstock for years as owners of bed and breakfasts and hotels complained they were losing business to STRs, although they are subject to the same 9% state meals and room tax along with the 1% town option tax as are traditional hoteliers (STRs need only self-certify they are in compliance with state fire safety regulations).

Fultz said he has “no issue with STRs and people making extra money” but said many hoteliers in Woodstock are concerned about the incursions of short-term rentals and the need for “balance” to be reached among the various interested parties — the town, the village, renters and residents.

“It needs to be fair to everybody,” he said. “Otherwise we’re going to have a town full of short-term rentals. You’ll walk down your block and you’ll have different neighbors every weekend. ... We’re hearing that people are coming into Woodstock to buy homes with the sole purpose of buying a short-term rental.”

The review found that there are currently 46 permitted short-term rentals in both the village and town of Woodstock — with the majority in the village — although the figures do not include short-term rentals in the exempt 5-plus acre and forest zones. Some in Woodstock estimate the total might reach as many as 100 short-term rentals when the exempt zones are included.

“The percentage of second-home owners is higher in the village, and second-home owners are more likely to be interested in STRs than full-time residents,” said Jeffrey Kahn, chairman of the Woodstock village trustees.

Last year, in response to concerns about the chronic housing shortage in Woodstock, the town’s Economic Development Commission commissioned a 107-page housing study that, among other things, found short-term rentals have led to an estimated 50 to 55 single-family homes being “pulled out of the primary rental or ownership markets in Woodstock.”

A survey found that the number of short-term rentals in Woodstock has soared by an average of 57% each year since 2014 and that during a span of six months in 2018 a total of 75 properties were listed as available to rent short-term.

Moreover, short-term rentals disproportionately hit the rental market, according to the study.

“The evidence clearly suggests that the impact of short-term rentals is to take units out of both the primary rental and ownership markets. While the impact on the ownership market is larger in absolute terms, the impact on the rental market may be more severe, as Woodstock’s rental stock is already limited,” the study said.

Woodstock’s ordinances within the village and town on short-term rentals are broadly similar, with one exception: Village property owners are allowed short-term rentals no more than six times per year, while the limit is set at 10 times per year for property owners in the town. Both municipalities carve out a five-week exception period between Sept. 15 and Oct. 21 during peak leaf-peeping season.

For some in Woodstock, the problem is not the frequency of short-term rentals so much as the flouting of those limits.

“The problem is they are not abiding by the rules and the town doesn’t have the personnel to police it like it should be,” Fultz said. He suggested one solution might be for Woodstock to contract with Host Compliance, a Silicon Valley company that supplies compliance monitoring and enforcement of short-term rentals for municipalities.

The issue has plenty of interest in town. A joint public information meeting last month with the village trustees and Selectboard to hear opinions about the short-term rental issue drew more than 70 people to voice their concerns.

Kahn, the village trustee, said many property owners were under the mistaken impression that the trustees meant to reduce the frequency or the number of days that property owners would be allowed to rent out short-term rentals — neither of which is being entertained.

“We are not going to reduce the frequency. We are not going to change the 30 days either. We are mostly concerned with safety. We want to be sure both local ordinances as well as our state safety regulations are being followed,” Kahn said.

Moreover, current short-term rental permit holders would be grandfathered under whatever new rules might be adopted.

“I agree that the rules are vague and there is room for fine-tuning,” said Derek DeMas, a village resident, property manager and surveyor who began renting a house that sleeps 10 people in the town’s 5-plus acre exempt zone four months ago. But he said property owners depend upon short-term rentals to cover the high cost of living in the bucolic and wealthy Vermont town.

DeMas said he would not like to see the exemption covering short-term rentals on properties of 5 acres or more lifted but he’s open to some kind of compromise.

“If they get rid of the exemption, they should add more opportunity,” he argued, such as expanding the exemption during foliage season or carving out a new one around such tourist draws as Woodstock’s annual Christmastime Wassail Weekend.

“The thought would be to bump up everybody,” he said.

Woodstock, to be sure, is hardly a typical Vermont town. Nearly 60% of the homes in the town are seasonal residences compared with 16% statewide, according to the Economic Development Commission study. That makes them ripe to become short-term rentals listed on Airbnb, said David Donegan of the Woodstock real estate firm Synder Donegan.

“It’s common for many second homes to be used only three to four weeks a year,” he said, but the influx of visitors renting those homes also “helps out the local businesses dramatically with increased consumer activity for meals and purchases.”

Kat Gray, who with her husband, Matt Gray, has renovated three residences for short-term rentals in Woodstock, said the majority of property owners comply with town ordinances, and she challenged the notion that short-term rentals hurt the availability of long-term rentals.

She noted that the properties they renovated for short-term rentals had been in disrepair or in foreclosure for years. Although two of the Grays’ properties are in the 5-plus-acre exempt zone, she noted their dilapidated condition meant that neither had been in the housing stock before the “substantial” amounts of money spent rehabbing them.

“Short-term rental gives us more control over the property” and allows them to recoup their investment better than a long-term rental would provide, Gray said.

“This has become my full-time job,” she said.

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.




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