BERLIN – Short-term rentals again dominated discussion at a meeting of the Berlin Planning Commission.
The commission, which met Wednesday, was presented with a letter from the Coastal Association of Realtors outlining concerns with short-term rental regulations being drafted by town staff. Planning Director Dave Engelhart, however, stressed the ordinance was still being developed. He said the idea wasn’t to work for or against short-term rentals, but rather to get something on the books.
“We are not trying to prohibit or promote this,” he said. “We’re trying to have an ordinance — we don’t have any at all — and kind of catch up to the 21st century here.”
In the letter sent yesterday to the commission, Coastal Association of Realtors President Joe Wilson asked officials to reconsider removing property owners’ ability to offer short-term rentals in residential zoning districts. Wilson wrote, “Most local jurisdictions have retroactively instituted short-term rental regulations after reporting negative experiences with short-term renters. Berlin is taking a proactive approach, which should be applauded. However, an outright ban on short-term rentals in all Berlin residential neighborhoods is not the answer.”
Engelhart said his department was still working on a draft of a short-term rental ordinance. He said he envisioned allowing short-term rentals in owner-occupied properties in the residential districts.
“Basically the letter asked us to consider that we not prohibit Airbnb or short-term rentals in our residential districts,” Engelhart said. “It cites some opinions by the state of Maryland that it’s not a commercial enterprise, it’s a residential use to do short-term rental and that it is a property right.”
According to Engelhart, short-term rentals would also be allowed in the R-3 and R-4 districts and would be permitted in second and third floor units in the downtown business district. Engelhart said officials were planning to consider any rental less than four months a short-term rental.
Commission member John Barrett expressed concern about restricting short-term rentals.
“I think there’s a fine line on taking a property owner’s rights away,” he said.
He pointed out that under the proposed limitations, a homeowner who wanted to rent a room to a Shorebirds player for the season, for example, might not be able to do that.
“Why should I not be allowed to do that?” he said.
Several people in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting shared their thoughts as well. Resident Cam Bunting, a Realtor, said she thought short-term rentals were a problem.
“I feel this is a bedroom community,” she said. “I do not feel like we need to do the Airbnbs.”
She said she’d heard complaints from people who lived next to properties that were used for short-term rentals.
“They’re here to have a good time, they’re here for vacation,” she said. “They don’t care that you’ve got to get up the next day. I think it’s a problem.”
She added that the town already had trouble with enforcement, as there were people renting out garage apartments and the like.
Local developer Spiro Buas told the commission he thought the regulations should be considered with safety in mind. He said that if a home was rented out to four separate short-term renters, in the event of a fire they’d have no knowledge of each other.
“Those properties aren’t set up life safety wise to protect the individual rooms…,” he said. “I would think that those people that want to do it should be required to bring their building up to the requirement of a rooming house, which would then stop it because that’s expensive to do.”
Commission member Pete Cosby agreed that was an angle the town should consider.
“That’s a good approach,” he said.
Commission member Matt Stoehr said that while much of the discussion tended to focus on problems caused by short-term rentals, there were positive aspects, such as the economic boon to the town. He said he routinely used services like Airbnb when he traveled.
“You’re in someone’s private home,” he said. “There’s a lot more respect for someone’s private home versus when you’re in a hotel room.”
He said that when there were problems, renters could be subject to fines for things like noise violations. While that isn’t foolproof, he said it was a deterrent.
Stoehr added that Berlin didn’t have an overabundance of hotel rooms to offer visitors.
Ivy Wells, the town’s economic and community development director, agreed. She said there were 17 rooms at the Atlantic Hotel, six rooms at the Waystead Inn and four rooms at Holland House.
“We have thousands coming to our events,” she said. “I feel more comfortable when someone is able to stay in town. They can walk downtown. It alleviates parking, more people are coming to town to shop and to dine.”
Stoehr added that he’d talked to a variety of people in town about the pending restrictions.
“They were kind of confused by the thought process of why we’re fighting so hard to restrict this,” he said, adding that he did understand there were some problem short-term rentals that aggravated their neighbors. “I don’t know why there isn’t some happy medium.”
Engelhart said staff thought the owner-occupied provision was a compromise.
“So they are allowed some places,” he said.
He added that the ordinance was still being developed and would undergo plenty of scrutiny before it was approved.
“We’re going to need more public feedback on it, but we’re trying to also keep moving forward on it,” he said.