BERLIN – Elected officials renewed discussions regarding potential short-term rental regulations this week.
On Monday, the Berlin Town Council hosted a work session to review an ordinance that would establish regulations governing short-term rentals in town. Council members shared their thoughts but said they were eager to hear from the public moving forward.
“I would like to hear from ‘joe blow’ homeowner that possibly lives beside one of these entities,” Councilman Dean Burrell said. “We have talked about the good and bad. When it’s good it’s good but when it’s bad it’s bad. I don’t want something disturbing my peace and quiet of my home and I would imagine no one wants that. But at the same time, I think property owners need flexibility as to what they own and how they use what they own.”
Town officials initially began researching short-term rental rules in 2019. Though staff had a draft ordinance prepared in February of 2020, the onset of the pandemic prompted officials to delay discussions until regular public meetings resumed. Planning Director Dave Engelhart was finally able to present the ordinance this week.
As proposed, it would permit short-term rentals in the R-1 and R-2 single family residential districts only in a property owner’s permanent residence. The ordinance defines permanent residence as a unit in which the owner resides for an aggregate of at least 180 days annually and the dwelling unit that carries the official designation as the owner’s principal residence.
The ordinance would also permit short-term rentals in the R-3 and R-4 districts and the business district where dwelling units are allowed.
Engelhart said the ordinance was intended to maintain the character of residential neighborhoods in Berlin and to protect the health, safety and general welfare of permanent residents.
“The fear was certain residential neighborhoods would get bought up by investors,” he said.
Under the new ordinance, property owners who wanted to use their homes as short-term rentals would have to fill out an application, pay a $150 fee and get their home inspected. The license will also require a 24-hour emergency contact for each property. Engelhart suggested that contact be required to be within 30 minutes of the site.
“If there was a violation, any violation, we could contact that 24-hour emergency contact and they could be here within a half an hour,” he said.
When asked how many short-term rentals Berlin currently had, Engelhart said there appeared to be about 14 in town limits, not counting the four or so operating in the apartments on Main Street that are in the business district.
When asked about potential noise violations, town staff said that any time there was an issue like that citizens should call the police.
“We’ve said all along this would be complaint driven enforcement,” Engelhart said. “We don’t have the manpower to be checking on every Airbnb every evening.”
While noise and trash are potential problems, Police Chief Arnold Downing said he communicated well with Engelhart’s department so that if there were issues with a short-term rental, the planning director would be aware. Engelhart added that he hadn’t received any complaints regarding short-term rentals.
“I think the elected officials have fielded some complaints,” Mayor Zack Tyndall said. “My inbox has been pretty full.”
Downing echoed Engelhart’s comment.
“A lot of times what we have is people complaining about different people being in houses,” he said. “It’s not a violation. Nobody’s having an issue, they’re complaining that ‘do you believe people rotate in and out of there every other week?’ Guess what it’s not a violation of law.”
Engelhart said that currently, short-term rentals were neither prohibited nor permitted in the code.
“When our zoning code was written there was no such thing as Airbnb,” he said. “There was no such thing as the internet to find out where these rentals were short -term. It just wasn’t being done back in 1977.”
Councilwoman Shaneka Nichols asked about potential fines. Engelhart said the property owner could be fined $100 for an initial violation and $200 for continuing violations.
Nichols asked what would happen if fines meant nothing to them.
“I think it would be hard on a short-term rental to make more than $6,000 a month …,” Engelhart said. “Eventually it’ll be a lien and we’ll own the house.”
Councilman Jay Knerr said he heard from residents who didn’t want short-term rentals in the residential districts.
“They felt it would change the nature of the neighborhoods, that it would be detrimental to Berlin,” he said.
Colin Zimmerman, government affairs director of the Coastal Association of Realtors, expressed concern with the ordinance as written and questioned its purpose.
“I understand the goal is to preserve neighborhoods but what is the fundamental problem you’re trying to solve here?” he said. “A lot of the things you’ve talked about are covered by existing ordinances.”
He added that the requirement that the homeowner be a permanent resident was effectively a ban.
“So if you own two properties in Berlin you can’t rent out that second one,” he said.
Councilmembers pointed out that the individual could rent that second home out as a year-round rental.
Nichols said she felt that if someone was renting out their property over and over they were essentially running a business in a residential district.
“It’s been maintained by every court — renting your home is not a business,” Zimmerman said. “That is something you can do with your property.”
Resident Todd Martinek also voiced objections to the ordinance as drafted. He said he managed about 25% of the short-term rentals in Berlin and hadn’t had any problems. He said he supported the idea of a license decal, something done in Ocean City, and believed short-term rentals were bringing money in to the town. The people renting the properties were not only paying rent but also eating out and frequently retail stores.
“These people coming to Berlin are families,” he said. “They’re spending a lot of money, they’re coming from wealthy areas. This is good for our town.”
He suggested grandfathering existing short-term rentals in if the new regulations were passed.
“We are looking for problems that aren’t there,” he said.
Tyndall said the town was considering all options and thanked Martinek and Zimmerman for their input. He suggested anyone else with constructive contributions contact elected officials with those ideas.
Burrell said he didn’t have a strong opinion on the topic but wanted to hear what residents thought about it. Tyndall agreed that should be part of the process.
“What I wanted for the purpose of this evening was to kind of feel out where we are with the document that was previously introduced, review it, talk about some things that maybe we want to see in there, and then maybe we can sharpen our pencil and start to amend that proposal,” said Tyndall, who as a councilman expressed opposition to a short-term rental only being allowed at primary residences.
Knerr shared a message he received from a constituent.
“You cannot have a town with the fabric like Berlin has without long-term people living in homes,” he said. “It was not built on Airbnb-style houses in between every few houses. it was built with families in all of the houses.”
Tyndall stressed that the discussion wasn’t over.
“This is the first of many conversations to come, including public comment opportunities,” he said. “We do look forward to that.”