Chester board hears from attorney about STR ordinance

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2022 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Chester’s Select Board continued deliberating on an ordinance that would require registration of  short term rentals — like Airbnb and VRBO — to gather information about the effects of such rentals on the town and to ensure that fire and safety regulations are observed.

Back in August, the Chester Planning Commission put its final touches on the ordinance and sent it to the Select Board for review, which the board began in mid-October. The ordinance started out differentiating between rentals that are hosted by a resident who lives on the property and those that are not. These have been referred to as “hosted” and “unhosted.” The idea was to support residents who may be doing rentals to pay their bills versus non-residents who are using a second home or an investment property as a business in a residential area.

Board member Lee Gustafson questions one of the changes to the ordinance by attorney Jim Carroll Photos by Shawn Cunningham

The two classes of rentals was removed for the second look at the ordinance in late October and the registration fees were changed from $150 for hosted and $300 for unhosted to $200 across the board. After more discussion, the board asked Town Manager Julie Hance to send both versions to town attorney Jim Carroll for his opinion.

At the Nov. 16 meeting, the board reviewed Carroll’s comments that included his favoring the designations of unhosted and hosted because in his “anecdotal experience” complaints about short-term rentals “largely involve disruptive gatherings staged a overcrowded STR’s.” In the discussion of Carroll’s changes, board member Lee Gustafson said he was confused by new language that referred to “the annual issuance” of short-term rental registration.

“I thought this was just to collect data,” said Gustafson. “The idea was to get information to use to decide how to proceed  to the ‘walk’ stage.” The “walk” reference was to discussion on the approach to regulating by Planning Commission chair Hugh Quinn who advocated a “crawl, walk, run” strategy.

“I’m confused by the language,” said Gustafson.

Quinn told the meeting that the registration was indeed intended to get better information, but also to help ensure that safety regulations were being observed.

Board chair saying that the board will decide whether or not to adopt the ordinance

Zoning Administrator Preston Bristow said he thinks that Carroll’s changes were “fairly neutral” and that the legal language would make the ordinance more durable. Planning Commission member Peter Hudkins observed that short-term rentals already have to meet some regulations by the state and that the registration is not “inventing anything new.”

Board member Ben Whalen said that the town is just ensuring that short-term rental landlords “are doing the right things,” and that he was ready to vote on it. Member Leigh Dakin felt the discussion needed more information and more meetings.

Board member Heather Chase said she would rather read the ordinance with Carroll’s markups incorporated into a final document before voting. A draft registration application prepared by Bristow was well-received by the board.

Chester residents Lori Quinn, Cathy Giurtino and James Goodfellow urged the board to move on the measure sooner than later and board chair Arne Jonynas said the board would decide whether to pass the ordinance or not at the next meeting.

Whiting Library asks for a raise

After a tumultuous year that saw the Whiting Library’s director and six out of seven trustees resign, the new board of trustees haw hired a new director and are looking forward, said board chair Donna Hudkins. But finding a qualified director is substantially more expensive and the library asked the town to cover $7,000 out of the $18,000 increase in salary. The requested increase would take the town’s portion of the library budget from $93,000 per year to $100,000.

Whiting Trustees chair Donna Hudkins tells the select board about the library’s request

For a number of years, the town’s contribution to the library, which is a municipal function with a publicly elected board, has covered the salaries of the library’s employees including the director, children’s librarian and library assistant.  Hudkins explained that the trustees looked at libraries of comparable size and population and found that the $50,000 the board has offered a new library director with a graduate degree is the median price range.

Hudkins told the board that the upheaval at the library and the work of reconstructing the board and hiring a new director made fundraising difficult, but that several factors – including the absence of the director’s salary – has helped keep income and expenses in balance.

Reviewing the budget provided by the library, Gustafson asked what the equity fund is and whether the library could take money from that to cover the shortfall and recoup the money next year. The equity fund acts like an endowment which provides an annual income to the library. Hudkins said it was also available for emergencies. Select board members noted that the library is asking for a portion of the employment increase, not the full amount.

Jonynas said there would not be a decision that evening but the request would be considered as part of the overall budgeting process.

Working Communities Challenge update

Amanda Sidler of Springfield Regional Development Corp. gave the board an update presentation on the work being done around the Working Communities Challenge, a program of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. There are eight of these “challenge teams” around the state and the Springfield team is working on increasing the workforce by addressing the barriers to people finding and keeping jobs.

Amanda Sidler of SRDC updates the board on the progress of the Working Communities Challenge

Among the primary barriers are transportation, childcare and housing. And while SRDC Executive Director Bob Flint said that childcare “screams out wherever we go,” Sidler said that there is no first priority and that the team works on all of the barriers at the same time.

Sidler noted that in addition to childcare and transportation, scheduling is a barrier to employment that many employers have the ability to control. She said that employers who are able to be flexible have an easier time finding and keeping employees.

Among the programs that the Springfield team has been able to try out are:

  1. a childcare assistance program to provide subsidies to parents and guardians to remain or re-enter the workforce
  2. a program to provide free laptop computers refurbished by the River Valley Tech Center to community members for seeking employment, access to education and development of computer skills.

Gustafson asked what can be done as a society to minimize the need for childcare and strengthen the family. He suggested lowering the cost of living in Vermont so both parents don’t have to work.

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