BERLIN – Frustration with the short-term rental regulations approved last year highlighted a meeting of the town council this week.
A week after a Main Street couple had to call the police when inebriated residents of a neighboring short-term rental entered their home at night, numerous citizens approached elected officials to share their concerns. They said they were upset the ordinance regulating rentals had been approved but was not being enforced.
“Where is this breakdown occurring?” asked Lauren Georgevich, who was upstairs with her young son when strangers entered their house last week, mistaking it for the Airbnb next door. “There’s a problem we’re all acknowledging it and not a lot is getting done about it. It’s going to end up with somebody getting hurt.”
Planning Director Dave Engelhart told the council this week that his office had received 12 short-term rental applications and had approved six.
The applications that were denied were all denied because they were not the owner’s primary residence, which in the residential district they are required to be under the town’s ordinance.
“I’ve been out of the office for medical reasons,” Engelhart said. “In the interim things exploded at this one address.”
He said going forward, his office would try to review applications quicker. He noted that his department already communicated regularly with town police and would be advised of any situations that arose with law enforcement. Chief Arnold Downing, however, pointed out that his department was meant to respond to violations of law, such as noise concerns.
Councilman Jay Knerr asked if the licensing process could be quicker. Engelhart said licensing primarily depended on inspections, which he thought the contractor the town used could have done in about two weeks.
“I just want to make sure we have a solid process in place…,” Knerr said. “We’re looking like fools up here.”
Councilman Jack Orris said the discussion was bigger than just the one problem property. He said the issue was enforcement.
“The plan going forward you presented is what’s already here,” he told Engelhart. “It just hasn’t been done.”
He said the town needed a code enforcement officer.
Councilman Steve Green asked who residents should be complaining to when they noticed an unlicensed property being rented short-term. Engelhart said they should reach out to his office.
“Neither the police or my department can tell those people checking in to get lost,” Engelhart said. “We have to go after the owner.”
Green pointed out the ordinance had been approved in October but notification hadn’t gone out to applicants whose license had been denied until March.
“There was a lot of work before we could kick off,” Engelhart said, adding that inspections hadn’t been conducted until February.
Green said he felt applicants needed to be advised that no renting was to be done while applications were pending approval.
“It’s a quality-of-life issue,” he said.
Councilwoman Shaneka Nichols expressed frustration that properties were still being rented whether they were licensed or not.
“That’s the part that aggravates me more than what’s happening in specific locations,” she said. “It’s the people that are flying under the radar. They’re making money off of this. We’ve told them no and they’re still doing it.”
She said Engelhart’s department needed a code enforcement officer to help, particularly since most short-term rentals weren’t doing things that rose to the level of police response.
In the portion of the meeting set aside for public comments, resident David Wells said he felt the town’s short-term rental regulations had been rushed.
He told the council he’d been advised his short-term rental passed inspection in March but still didn’t know whether he had a license.
“I think we all can agree short-term rental was approved way too quickly,” he said. “There’s no one that’s going around, as Ms. Nichols discussed, enforcing the laws set by the town.”
He suggested the town look at occupancy restrictions to keep the rentals manageable.
“I just think we jumped in headfirst and we didn’t know what was at the bottom,” he said.
Wells added that short-term rentals could benefit the town, particularly as it was now a destination but one that residents didn’t want to see change.
“Listen, I used to live here when I could sit on Main Street and put my legs out in the middle of the street eating chicken wings at the IGA and not a car would go by,” he said. “Now, to see what the town of Berlin is like, that is a testament to our town council, our citizens, the businesses here.”
Resident Kim Holloway pointed out the mayor had never signed the short-term rental ordinance.
“When your mayor doesn’t back it and your mayor doesn’t sign it, it makes me wonder what kind of enforcement is being done and if a blind eye is being turned to a situation we’re all very passionate about,” she said.
Holloway agreed that the town was in desperate need of a code enforcement position.
Anne Marie Pollack said she’d searched Airbnb just before the meeting and found nearly 20 properties available in town for short-term rental.
“At some point someone has got to start implementing these ordinances that you all voted on for us as citizens,” she said. “You all do the ordinance and then it seems like this one is just floundering.”
She said residents had done their job by sharing their concerns with elected officials but then the ball had been dropped. She said the town was starting to seem like one that put tourist dollars ahead of resident safety.
Jennifer Hickman, a neighbor of the Main Street rental that has been the source of recent problems, said it wasn’t fair that people who followed the rules had to be concerned for their property and welfare.
“I am pretty sure that property will be rented again,” she said. “It is not fair to all of us that this continues to go on.”
Berlin resident Adam Davis said the various fines that would be issued if rules were enforced could help fund the salary of a code enforcement officer. Georgevich said she didn’t blame Engelhart, as he’d made it clear when short-term rental regulations were initially discussed that it would be difficult for his department to handle.
“You asked for help, and it was not supplied,” she said.
Orris thanked residents for attending and spoke again of the need for enforcement.
“We need to make sure everybody’s safe and the rules that we set are followed and enforced,” he said.
Nichols reminded residents that elected officials lived in town too.
“Are we going to fix it? We hope so,” she said. “We live here just like you do. We don’t want to see this happen any longer.”
Green said he didn’t disagree with anything he’d heard.
“As far as moving forward, that’s the thing,” he said, adding that officials now needed to address citizen concerns.
Green said the shorter application review timeline that Engelhart mentioned was a start but acknowledged that the two-person planning department likely needed another worker. He said that was a conversation officials could have as they discussed the budget at the next meeting.
“This has been—it’s embarrassing, I’m sorry to say,” he said. “I just want us to move forward.”