2015-08-27 / Front Page

Rental Workshop Falls Short

By Olga Enger

A long-anticipated workshop to discuss short-term rentals in Newport was not as productive as some council members had hoped.

“More than 20 people from the public came but we only heard from four in 35 minutes,” said Councilor Naomi Neville, who, along with Councilors John Florez and Lynn Ceglie, requested the workshop in March through a resolution. Neville requested a similar workshop in 2014, but it was never scheduled after former City Manager Jane Howington resigned.

Guesthouses, or rentals less than 30 days, are permitted by right in the limited business, waterfront business, general business, and commercial-industrial districts. Properties in other districts may apply for a special use permit through the Zoning Board of Review. There are around 170 approved guesthouses in the city, including hotels, while more than 600 homes have been registered this year as shortterm rentals (with durations between one and nine months).

“The turnout was not as big as we would have hoped for,” Florez agreed. “I think it is just summer. When people have the option of going to the park or a City Hall meeting, they will want to be outside.” He added that a lack of time limits on speakers prevented everyone from being heard.

“A number of people walked out and many were not given a chance to speak, so I don’t know the opinions they had on the topic,” commented Neville.

The workshop began with city staff presentations and the remaining 30 minutes were opened up to the public. The four who took the podium were opposed to vacation rentals.

The era of “Zoo-port,” when party houses were rampant during the 1980s, was brought up several times. Gunter Kern, who has lived on Clay Street for over 30 years, said his neighborhood has been transformed by rentals. “This is an old problem that goes back 20 to 25 years, but it keeps growing. We need action, not talk,” said Kern at the workshop.

In 1992, during the height of the Zoo-port era, council passed ordinances restricting vacation rentals. At that time, the city also began to work with Salve Regina University to house more students on campus.

Linda Stevenson of Dixon Street said those decisions, along with strict noise ordinances, provide enforcement tools to preserve Newport’s quality of life.

“Weekly rentals change residential districts,” Stevenson agreed with Kern.

Neville told Newport This Week in April, that while she understands the concerns, the reality is that people are already renting their houses out for less than a month.

“It’s happening, yet it’s not Zooport,” Neville said.

Florez added there are probably more homes rented today on a short-term basis because of websites such as airbnb.com.

“Newport today is very different than 15 years ago,” said Florez. “Then, it was a rowdy, overly-boisterous experience that compromised the quality of life. Today, there are probably more weekly rentals, but there are only a handful of problem houses.”

City officials clarified that despite a state budget provision that added a tax on rentals less than 30 days effective July 1, 2015, zoning is still defined and regulated by local government.

Councilor Justin McLaughlin said he was disappointed the workshop “train went off on the wrong track.”

“Where would you want to allow it? Would you restrict it by month? What would be a minimal rental period? These are the types of questions we should be asking,” said McLaughlin. Instead, the conversation was about changing the ordinance to fit what people are already doing, the councilor explained.

Despite the workshop, Florez plans to propose a one-year pilot program for short-term rentals. Other councilors were more hesitant.

“I'm not opposed to regulating weekly rentals,” explained McLaughlin. “But it’s not an easy thing to do. It would require a careful crafting. I don’t think anyone on the council would feel comfortable advocating for it at this time.”

Ceglie, who was originally open to the idea of permitting shorterterm rentals, said she now believes Newport residents “aren’t ready.”

“I can’t sponsor a resolution based on a one-hour workshop,” said Ceglie. “If this is something the council wants to do, we have to spend a lot of time informing the public and bringing in experts. There just isn’t enough information at this time.”

Neville agreed. “Without any public support, I’m not sure it’s a topic we should pursue.”

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