Berlin Officials Approve Short-Term Rental Ordinance

Berlin Officials Approve Short-Term Rental Ordinance
Resident Mike Hickman talks to the council about issues he's had living next door to a short-term rental. Photo by Charlene Sharpe

BERLIN – In an effort to protect the quality of life for Berlin’s residents, town officials approved short-term rental regulations that include residency requirements this week.

Following a two-hour public hearing Monday, the Berlin Town Council voted 3-2, with Councilmen Troy Purnell and Dean Burrell opposed, to approve short-term rental regulations that include the requirement that short-term rentals in the R-1 and R-2 district be an owner’s primary residence per state records. Though the requirement was in early drafts of the legislation, it was removed by Mayor Zack Tyndall prior to introduction. The majority of residents who spoke at Monday’s meeting said they felt the residency requirement was critical.

“I just ask that you protect our small neighborhoods, our small-town living—what we’re used to,” resident Anne Pollack said. “If you feel the need for businesses like Airbnb in our neighborhoods it must be owner occupied, making the owner responsible—not our police department—for all the little petty calls.”

Since 2019, Berlin staff and officials have been researching short-term rental rules in an effort to get something on the books in Berlin, as short-term rentals previously weren’t addressed in the code. The ordinance under consideration this week allows short-term rentals in the residential and some of the business zoning districts. The ordinance also sets up a licensing process and outlines fines for when violations occur. Dozens of residents were in attendance to share their thoughts on the proposed regulations.

Resident Mike Hickman, who lives next door to what is marketed on Airbnb as the “Brewhouse on Main Street,” described his experiences.

“Ninety percent of the time everything’s fine,” he said. “It’s that 10% that’s why I felt compelled to come here.”

Hickman said he’d had one person staying at the Airbnb house come into his yard in an attempt to wrestle one of his German shepherds. Another time, he found a family chasing fireflies on his lawn.

Though his dogs don’t leave his yard, he said his attorney had advised him to install cameras, post “no trespassing” signs and take out a $1 million liability policy in case people came onto his property.

“I’ve lived 50 years in this town,” he said. “It broke my heart to put a no trespassing sign in my yard. It’s all because of the short-term rental next to my house … This week in, week out not knowing what you’re getting, it’s insane.”

Broad Street resident Ryan Nellans asked that the owner-occupied provision be returned to the ordinance. He said he didn’t see a proliferation of short-term rentals benefiting the town.

“I see the erosion of our community as growing families are priced out of year-round rentals, which don’t make enough money,” he said. “I see older members of our community without neighbors who can shovel the snow from their driveway or bring their trash bins up from the curb when it’s raining.”

Resident Carol Jacobs said she supported the ordinance as presented, without any owner occupancy provision.

“To require that you can only have a short-term rental if the resident agent also lives in the house would in my opinion defeat the entire purpose of an Airbnb,” she said. “All you’re doing is maybe allowing a bedroom or two bedrooms in your house with you living there. That’s not what most people are seeking when they want vacation time with their families.”

Resident Tony Weeg, noting that he owned a condo in Ocean City and understood the short-term rental business, expressed concern with the ordinance as proposed. He said businesses weren’t permitted in residential zones.

“There’s not a pizza shop next to my house,” he said. “There’s a house on either side and across the street. Families live in all of them.”

He said that Ocean City was built for the rotating tenants that short-term rentals brought to town.

“I hope that you can see the difference between Berlin and Ocean City…,” he said. “The inclusion of the owner-occupied provision is a crucial step—one that was there, discussed, taken out in a silo of sorts, and now we’re all here telling you something. We want it back.”

Resident Devon Voisine said no one wanted Berlin to become Ocean City but that there had to be a way to allow short-term rentals while ensuring they didn’t negatively impact the town. He suggested a strike system for violations or a limit on the number of short-term rental licenses.

He said the opposition to short-term rentals came from a small percentage of people, not the entire town.

“If it did there would be 4,500 people in this room,” he said. “The opposition being shown is by an extremely vocal few.”

Resident Todd Martinek told the council he managed a variety of short-term rentals for property owners in Berlin and Ocean City. He reviewed 322 Berlin stays at the properties he manages and said the demographic was 36 years old with 1.6 children.

“The people that come here love Berlin,” he said. “If they want to party this is not where they come.”

Deeley Chester said he owned property on Burley Street and that he’d never had any issues with his short-term rental.

“I have a lot of strict guidelines,” he said. “We do vet some of the renters.”

When he asked how many 911 calls last year related to short-term rentals, Police Chief Arnold Downing said there had been three calls.

Other property owners who offered their homes as short-term rentals said they’d never had problems either and talked about how renting their homes had enabled them to earn extra income. Several of them used that money to enhance their properties.

“Maybe we’re making a mountain out of a molehill,” said Keith Sargent, who has a property on Westminster that he lists on Airbnb.

Many residents, however, continued to object. Debi Cook said the people speaking on behalf of the ordinance as written all had financial investments in short-term rentals. Resident Ed Hammond said allowing more short-term rentals would remove housing stock for families. He said if people wanted to make money with their homes they could rent them long-term, as that would generate revenue and would install people who as long-term tenants could be functional parts of the community.

Resident Barb Stack said short-term rentals should be permitted the same way bed and breakfasts were—through a conditional use approved by the board of zoning appeals.

Councilman Jay Knerr said he’d heard from constituents regarding the ordinance and that they wanted the residency requirement worked back in.

“Overwhelmingly they wanted to protect the sanctity of our neighborhoods,” he said.

The council voted 4-1, with Purnell opposed, to amend the ordinance to incorporate the residence requirement.

Burrell said he understood the concerns about property rights and how people relied on generating income through renting. He said there was also the issue of quality of life to consider.

“Rules are not made for those conscientious renters that check folks out, that never had an issue,” he said. “Rules are made for those exceptions. Those exceptions to the rules that may impact negatively on my quality of life. The vote we’re going to take now can impact the Town of Berlin for decades to come. I would ask my fellow councilpersons to please consider that when they cast their vote.”

Following other minor amendments, a motion to approve the ordinance and have it go into effect July 1 failed, with two in favor and three opposed. When Councilwoman Shaneka Nichols made it clear she’d voted against the motion because she wanted to see the regulations implemented sooner, staff said that wasn’t possible. Planning Director Dave Engelhart said he still had to create the short-term rental application and get the rest of the implementation process underway. Another motion to approve the ordinance with an effective date of July 1 passed 3-2, with Burrell and Purnell opposed.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.