Newport This Week

Groups Spar Over Short-Term Rentals in Middletown

The question of whether the Middletown Town Council should approve new regulations beyond what has already been adopted again came to the forefront at the May 2 meeting. Both sides of the argument seem to agree that no homeowner should have to deal with loud parties filled with intoxicated visitors or rampant overcrowding. But the agreement mostly stops there.

To deal with the issue, the town is now considering a new ordinance that would require shortterm rental operators to apply for a special-use permit, a process that would be followed by public hearings where opponents can air their grievances and a public body would vote on each application on a case-by-case basis.

At the end of the May 2 discussion, the Town Council voted 6-0 to direct the solicitor’s office to prepare a draft ordinance requiring that all short-term rentals secure a special-use permit from the Zoning Board of Review. Any new ordinance requires two separate public hearings before final adoption.

Many opponents of short-term rentals point to Newport’s recent move to restrict them. But according to Middletown assistant solicitor Marissa Desautel, that ordinance is unlikely to withstand a challenge in Superior Court, citing a state law passed by the General Assembly in 2021 that prohibits municipalities from preventing anyone from renting their property on a short-term basis.

What is allowed in the law is local control over specific regulations, she said, as well as the use of a permitting process to vet individual applications. A governing board is permitted to deny requests for a permit if their operations are found to be disrupting the public good.

According to what has emerged as an organized lobby seeking to retain the right to offer short-term rentals on platforms like Airbnb and Vrbo, the debate over how to regulate the steady growth of these operations has been dominated by a relatively small but active opposition.

While stories of absentee landlords, unwelcome changes to the neighborhood fabric, and gatherings that lead into the early morning hours and require calls to police, have become regular fare during public meetings, there have also been operators who say that despite playing by the rules, they have become the target of their neighbors’ ire that at times has bordered on harassment.

Resident Debra Fragola has operated a short-term rental for years. She vets her tenants before allowing them to stay at her property, she said, often renting to families on vacation. And unlike the common narrative that many operators arrive from out of town to purchase property for the sole purpose of renting it out, her issues arose from a new arrival who “watches intently for any sort of infraction he feels he can report on,” she said, adding that her property was once the source of a complaint that her trash bins were put out on the street one hour earlier than required.

“This brings to mind some bullies from elementary school,” she said.

However, Jo-ann Thornton, who lives next door to a short-term rental, said her nights are repeatedly disturbed by its tenants. “I have a nightmare next door to me,” she said.

There are approximately 300 short-term rentals registered in Middletown, a majority of which are located in the Easton’s Point neighborhood around lower Aquidneck Avenue. Town administrator Shawn Brown has said that while legitimate concerns regarding the proliferation of these rentals must be addressed, there has not been an overwhelming issue town-wide as far as public safety, with police responding to one or two calls per week on average.

Using data compiled from SeeClickFix, the online registry used by the town to field resident reports of noncompliance with local ordinances, short-term rental operator Leon Amarant said that most of the complaints lodged on the site seemed to come from a handful of people.

“Of the 83 complaints, 59 of them came from a single account,” he said. “That is a manipulation of the system. One person is going around with the list of short-term rental addresses because they don’t like them, and filing complaints for rental properties that they are not even a neighbor of. And that is a fact confirmed by the town. And it is being done under the cover of anonymity.”

Of the 29 complaints for noise last year, only one ended with a municipal citation.

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