Challenged short-term rentals approved by councilors – Jamestown Press – Jamestown Press

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Four more properties have been approved as short-term rentals, despite two of the applications facing objections, which brings the total to 50.

The town council ratified 88 Columbia Ave. and 143 Hamilton Ave. as part of the consent agenda at its Jan. 16 meeting. Approval allows these properties to be rented in 2024 for fewer than 30 consecutive days. According to the ordinance, which was adopted in August, the councilors, as the licensing authority, “may approve an application on their consent agenda, without public hearing or deliberation,” if no objections are made.

The other two properties, 128 Garboard St. and 87 Bow St., were approved at a public hearing. The ordinance says a public hearing “shall be available to any person requesting to make comment or contest a short-term rental.”

So far, 48 of the 50 applications put before the council have been ratified via consent agenda, following administrative approval, at four meetings (Dec. 4, Dec. 18, Jan. 2 and Jan. 16). The applications for 128 Garboard St. and 87 Bow St. are the only two applications to reach the highest level of scrutiny.

“This is the beginning of our learning curve,” said Mary Meagher, vice president of the council. “We’re learning what people are concerned about and we’re learning where we need to get more information.”

Objecting to 87 Bow St., owned by Pamela Storey, was Karl Seelig, of 11 Deck St., who lives a street over from the short-term rental. He questioned whether the property had a valid septic system. Jean Lambert, the civil engineer tasked with reviewing septic systems for short-term applications, said there was no valid record of a permit for the property’s onsite wastewater treatment system with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. When no permit is located, and if the maintenance inspection is current, Lambert said the ordinance allows the application to be “approved for a maximum of two bedrooms.”

The town requires an inspection for conventional systems every three years and annually for “high-tech systems,” according to Lambert’s report. The system at Bow Street was inspected in November 2023.

Seelig, however, cited anecdotal evidence to discredit the ordinance’s merit. When his system was being assessed, he said, the inspector told him he was approved for four bedrooms. That system, however, was only capable of three bedrooms, Seelig said. There was an additional system that was installed to accommodate the fourth bedroom, which Seelig said the inspector never saw before approving the system for four bedrooms. He said these inspectors are not necessarily engineers who should be trusted with the assessments.

“These people are not knowledgeable enough to identify a system,” Seelig said.

The application as submitted, however, met the letter of the law, according to Councilman Randy White.

“Under the ordinance as written, and the circumstances as presented, there’s no reason to deny this application,” White said.

White and Meagher, however, did acknowledge Seelig’s concern.

“Your questions have raised issues that we didn’t address in the ordinance,” Meagher said. “I think they are terrific questions.”

“It does raise some pretty significant and considerable issues that I think we will be well advised to take heed of,” White added.

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The second property to be considered at the public hearing was 128 Garboard St., owned by Casey Duva. Although the original objection at the Jan. 2 meeting was made by Erin Escher, of 252 Seaside Drive, (“It really is an impairment to the integrity of the residential character”), speaking at the public hearing was Sheila Cicerchia, of 136 Garboard St.

Duva, a teacher and sailing coach in Massachusetts, said he bought the property in Jamestown as a second home for his retirement. His family, however, cannot afford two mortgages.

“Airbnb was our solution,” he said. “We are trying to be the best neighbors that we can. Accidents do happen, for sure. But we try to be super responsive.”

Cicerchia, however, had a different story. She complained about tenants urinating outdoors, mice, “cars pulling in and out … at all hours of the night” and “strangers coming to my door because they think we’re the rental house.”

“My neighbors are not my neighbors,” she said. “They don’t live here.”

Cicerchia, calling the integrity of her home “severely compromised,” said she sleeps with the windows closed due to the commotion.

“I’d like to sleep at night with my window open once in a while,” she said. “It’s just not fair.”

Councilman Mike White, however, said these problems were happening before the councilors were charged with overseeing short-term rentals.

“If something happened in the past, we can’t really adjudicate that,” he said. “I really can’t see us denying them if we’ve never been in charge of monitoring them.”

The councilors then urged the abutting neighbors to document their problems, if they were to continue, so there would be cause for denial next year.

“This was intended, especially in these initial stages, to be a forum so owners of an Airbnb could hear the distress of neighbors who may not have expressed it in so clear of terms before,” Meagher said. “Now it’s on the record.”

“I respect the concerns that the neighbors have,” Councilman Randy White said. “But I also have to respect the good faith of the applicant. … It’s really hard, as someone who is being asked to make a judgment, to assess the merits of either side because we’re just meeting both of you.”

White then made a plea to both sides. He asked objectors to refrain from “lying in wait” during the rental season by looking for “every single violation and creating an impossible situation for the applicant.” As for the applications with objectors, he suggested for the renters to “be especially mindful to the ongoing concerns and complaints.”

“You should do absolutely everything you can to make your neighbors happy,” he said.

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