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As Vermont's Airbnb Scene Grows, Small Towns Struggle With Regulation

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Some of the people who live in West Dummerston want the town to clamp down on Airbnb rentals in the village. Across Vermont, Airbnb rentals increased by 87 percent last year, but the state has little oversight over the online service.

Airbnb reached an agreement with the state last year to collect the rooms and meals tax from Vermonters who use the online service to rent out their property. But in some communities, the issues raised by Airbnb go beyond dollars and cents.The town of Dummerston wants to clamp down on some Airbnb rentals after some neighbors complained about how the service was affecting West Dummerston, one of the town's compact neighborhoods.

Things don't change a whole lot in the village of West Dummerston. There's a church. And a grange, and a lazy country road with historic homes and well-tended gardens.

Beverly Tier lives in the village, and she says when a neighbor down the street started renting out her place on ?Airbnb, people noticed.

"This is a quiet little community," Tier says. "We know who our neighbors are, and when we have Airbnb people come, we don't know who our neighbors are. There are a lot of children in this neighborhood, so that's a little bit disconcerting for some people."

Airbnb is an online service that connects homeowners with people from all over the world who might want to rent out their house, or even rooms in the house.

And in many parts of Vermont, it works just fine.

Tier says she's got no problem with a group that comes in to rent a place out in the woods, and maybe have a fire and some music.

But here in West Dummerston, it's just not working for her.

"There are parts in Dummerston where I don't think it's that big a deal in terms of bothering neighbors, because the neighbors are all quite a long ways apart," says Tier. "But here in the village, where we're all really close, it's a little bit disconcerting to think about a lot of people renting one building all at the same time. And there's nobody there to control the behavior that happens there."

Some of the people who live in West Dummerston have been complaining to the Dummerston Select Board for about a year, and they want the town to enforce its zoning regulations.

They say if someone opens up a commercial business — which they say Airbnb rentals obviously are — then the owners should get a permit.

And Select Board Chairman Zeke Goodband says the town is ready to take action.

"You know the Airbnbs are flying under the radar," Goodband says. "We just want to get them above ground and have them be subject to the same safety regulations and inspections that other rental properties are subject to."

The town is about to send a letter out to everyone in Dummerston who has a house listed on Airbnb, asking them to apply for a zoning permit.

Goodband says the town can't just crack down on the rentals in the village, and so they'll go on Airbnb, put Dummerston, Vermont, in the search engine and track down everyone in town who's got a house listed.

"With our zoning in general we want people to be able to enjoy their properties," Goodband says. "And part of zoning is also having a process where your neighbors can have some say in what sort of business you have on your property that abuts their property, and might have an impact on the enjoyment of their property. So that's pretty much our goal."

For its part, Airbnb tells every host to check their local zoning regulations, and company attorney Andrew Kalloch says that goes a long way toward making sure everyone is on the same page when the first guest shows up.

"From our perspective as a company, Airbnb, our goals are met when both guests, hosts and neighbors benefit from home-sharing," he says. "So in order to make sure that that can continue, we want to make sure that our hosts comply with whatever ordinances are in place in their communities."

Dummerston isn't the only town in Vermont that's trying to get a handle on the Airbnb phenomenon.

In March, the town of Hinesburg put out a notice reminding Airbnb hosts that they need a local permit.

And in Hartford, a group of residents came out to a February planning commission meeting to talk about cars driven by Airbnb renters getting stuck in the snow, inadequate parking and life safety issues.

Hartford is much bigger than Dummerston and Zoning Administrator Jo-Ann Ells says for now, the town will address complaints as they come in.

"We're going to do more of an educational outreach than specifically start looking for them. I don't have time to look for every zoning violation," she says. "So when we hear there are problems, we will look into it. But I think it's something that the planning commission will probably talk about more over the next coming year."

Lawmakers have also recognized a growing need to get a handle on the Airbnb scene in Vermont, and they asked a number of state regulatory agencies to weigh in on the issue.

And a recently published report found that there wasn't very much the state could do at this point. In the report, the Division of Fire Safety said there was no way they could inspect every Airbnb, while the Department of Health found that the small rentals don't fall under its jurisdiction for food and lodging.

Lillian Colasurdo is with the Department of Health, and she says it's mostly up to the towns and cities to regulate short-term rentals.

"The department currently has no authority or program in place to look at, or to license, or to regulate in any way, short-term rentals in the state," Colasurdo says. "And for the most part, states have decided to stay out of these discussions as a government entity. And almost all regulation to this date have been through local municipalities, either through zoning or through the passage of other specific ordinances."

According to Airbnb, about 140,000 people used the service to stay in Vermont in 2016 — an 87 percent increase over the previous year.

The company says a typical host in Vermont brought in about $5,600.

The Legislature has ordered a second study this year to continue looking at how the state might play a role in the growth of online short-term rentals.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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