WILMINGTON — The Select Board is starting to finalize zoning changes, most notable among them an ordinance on short-term rentals.
After a 4-1 vote in November, the Wilmington Planning Commission proposed zoning amendments in residential districts that would make STRs with four or fewer bedrooms a permitted use requiring approval from the town’s zoning administrator, and STRs with five or more bedrooms a conditional use that needs the Wilmington Development Review Board’s blessing. Neither category would require an operator on site.
“There is nothing here that prohibits short-term rentals,” Select Board Vice Chairman John Gannon said at a board meeting on Dec. 19. “This process avoids the cost of a third party running a registry, which could be quite expensive. It avoids the enforcement process of a registry, yet it gives us much of the information that we need if we have a problem with a short-term rental.”
Gannon said the proposed changes eliminate “many of the concerns” heard at Planning Commission meetings. If a property owner fails to follow the zoning ordinance, the town can file a notice of violation.
Commission Chairman John Lebron, who voted against the STR ordinance, said the town would not have any information on a new owner if a property is sold later on so the ordinance “does not take the place of a registry.” He noted changes to zoning in 2013 were intended to make sure owners could rent rooms in the residential area.
“That geographic doesn’t exist anymore,” he said, adding that people own several properties operating as STRs.
Lebron said the new changes were “pushed through” by other commission members and he’s concerned they have a conflict of interest.
“We could have a Holiday Inn on Lake Raponda,” he said. “I can’t believe the Select Board is going to sit here and say that is OK.”
Board Chairman Tom Fitzgerald said, “You know that’s not going to happen.”
“You’re allowing it to possibly happen,” Lebron said. “If the Select doesn’t think that’s a problem, maybe we need a change of guard in the Select Board.”
Fitzgerald said Lebron was “contradicting” four out of five commission members.
“We are a resort community,” Fitzgerald said. “We are really pushing for beds. We need the beds.”
Lebron encouraged the board to put a cap on STRs and establish a registry. He said Wilmington had about 200 STRs in 2020, 400 in 2022 and likely 500 now.
The Select Board discussed tweaking the document to clean it up and make it more consistent. Fitzgerald said the town attorney will be consulted.
On Tuesday this week, the board is set to discuss the zoning changes.
“There is a public hearing that will be scheduled after the Select Board approves any of their initial changes and the Planning Commission is required to submit a new report based on any changes made,” Town Manager Scott Tucker told the Reformer.
Roberts previously told the Reformer that permits have been required for lodging or STRs in town since 1993. In 2015, the commission changed restrictions about what’s allowed in the residential zone to just two STRs. Before 2015, as many as six bedrooms could be used for STRs.
The proposal at an October hearing would have removed a requirement to have an operator on site at STRs in the residential district. However, the proposal wouldn’t have created a pathway forward for people in the residential zone to have more than two bedrooms for STRs. Roberts asked commissioners to consider doing so after hearing from property owners, but they decided against the idea earlier in the process.
In the village zone, approval from the DRB is currently needed for STRs with more than two bedrooms being used as guest rooms. The proposal from the October hearing would have allowed for three with Roberts’ approval and more than four with DRB approval.
In the commercial zones, STRs with more than two bedrooms currently need to go to the DRB. The proposal from the October hearing would have allowed Roberts to approve as many as four, and five or more would go to the DRB.
Certain conditions can be put on any STR that goes before the DRB such as requirements related to screening and hours of operation, Roberts said at the Dec. 19 board meeting. She noted permitting through her office involves three pages, compared to four for the DRB.
Both processes take into account wastewater allocation and fire safety. Neighbors must be invited to the DRB hearings, where they can weigh in.
Roberts estimated the DRB process takes three to six months before approval.
“There’s no easy solution to the short-term rental thing,” Gannon said, expressing concern about the cost of a registry or the burden it would put on the zoning administrator to run.