2014-07-17 / Front Page

Online Rentals Eyed

By Barry Bridges

The Newport City Council has embraced a resolution introduced by Vice Chair Naomi Neville that takes the first step in developing a policy for the proper registration of property rentals arranged through online booking services.

A growing number of Internet sites provide a platform for tourists and business travelers to connect with aspiring innkeepers who have rooms or entire homes for rent. For example, San Francisco-based airbnb.com, established in 2008, operates in cities worldwide and features tens of thousands of accommodation options, whether “an apartment for a night, a castle for a week, or a villa for a month.” A quick search on the site for availability in Newport yielded 390 rentals currently being offered at various price points.

However, Newport’s zoning laws permit this practice only in limited areas absent a special permit.

“In this age of technology, websites have been developed whereby property owners list rooms and homes for rent without properly registering with the City of Newport,” Neville’s resolution says. “Be it resolved that the council calls upon the city administration to develop a policy to ensure that online rentals are properly registered with the city and are in compliance with all applicable ordinances.”

At the council’s regular meeting on Wednesday, July 9, Neville expanded upon her reasons for pursuing the matter.

“This is a growing issue in many cities,” she said. They are all dealing with this problem, because now you can rent with such ease.” She continued to say, “I do believe this is something that should be examined more as a first step in moving forward with dealing with online rentals.”

In a conversation with Newport This Week, Zoning Officer Guy Weston confirmed that such rentals are presently allowed only in the waterfront business district, the general business district, and the limited business district. He pointed to the area of lower Thames Street and west to the harbor as an example of where the zoning law currently permits temporary tenants.

Most of the city is zoned residential. Explaining the significance of this designation, Weston said, “There are a lot of vacation websites that make weekly rentals available in houses. Under our zoning code, this would be considered a guest house. In the majority of the city (the R-10 zone), a special use permit is required for such a practice.” The permit, issued upon approval by the Zoning Board of Review, could be granted for an indefinite period of time. Weston reports that there are currently about a dozen permits for guest houses in residential zones.

Beyond the economic hit on hotel owners and the city’s loss of tax revenues, Weston said that temporary rentals impact resident in several ways. “The biggest problem we have now is that there doesn’t seem to be accountability. We see overcrowding, parking issues, and noise complaints.” Noise can be a troublesome concern because vacationers are in town to have fun and are not always respectful of nearby neighbors.

Hitting on that theme at last Wednesday’s meeting, Second Ward Councilor Justin McLaughlin said, “This isn’t about raising money; the objective is to make sure we have rules in place that everyone plays by. This will go a long way toward creating peace and quiet.”

Councilor Kathryn Leonard wondered why current laws aren’t adequate enough to provide a solution. Although she is lending her support to the measure, she said, “We have ordinances on the books for short-term rentals. It’s an issue of enforcing what we already have.”

Also backing the initiative was Councilor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano. “The biggest problem I see is in non-owner-occupied houses that are rented out.” She agreed that noise and trash can create headaches, but thought that enforcement would be a challenge.

Councilor Michael Farley concurred with Leonard and Napolitano. “We don’t have enforcement tools in place,” he said. “We don’t cite people for one-week rentals. This is a good opportunity to review this issue.”

As Weston later acknowledged, “Enforcement of these regulations is a challenge.” There may be ways for the city to better identify infractions, but he said that “an advertisement is not the actual act; in and of itself, an ad is not enough. We would need additional evidence” to invoke the ordinances.

According to Weston, the Council has looked at the tighter regulation of temporary rentals through the years, but a permanent solution has not materialized. The proliferation of online bookings has brought the matter back to the forefront.

Neville’s resolution appears to be consistent in spirit with a recent ordinance passed by City Council to protect homeowners’ and tenants’ rights of quiet enjoyment of their property. Last September, the council passed a public nuisance provision prohibiting “substantial disturbances” such as excessive noise or traffic, obstruction of public streets by crowds or vehicles, illegal parking, public drunkenness, public urination, serving alcohol to minors, fights, disturbances of the peace, litter, drug activity, and the illegal use of fireworks.

City staff will report back to council members in October on their findings and recommendations for a policy to address the online rental trend.

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