Amherst Town Meeting rejects rental permit proposal
AMHERST — Town Meeting on Monday rejected a zoning initiative, aimed at the growing problem of student rentals in residential neighborhoods, that would have required homeowners to get permission if they wanted to rent single-family dwellings they don’t occupy.
At the second session this fall, members by a margin of 113-68 rejected an effort that would limit people’s freedom to rent their homes.
But by voice vote, Town Meeting approved a zoning measure that will require owners seeking to rent duplexes in which they do not live to get special permits.
Nina Wishengrad of Precinct 5 said she doesn’t want to have to seek permission to rent out her home.
“We can’t have intrusion into our personal decision-making regarding our properties,” Wishengrad said. “It’s scary to me.”
Paige Wilder of Precinct 10 said requiring a special permit would guide people toward renting to families and more responsible tenants.
“Why is it their right to rent their house out without rules?” asked Gerald Weiss of Precinct 8.
Planning Board member Robert Crowner said requiring a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals if a home is not occupied by its owner gives residents a chance to have a more thorough assessment of what would happen. “It doesn’t mean a no, it means there are conditions for that use,” Crowner said.
Yet many saw it like John Edwards of Precinct 9, who described the bylaw change as an alienation of property rights.
“I think what we have to work on is behavior, not these restrictions on people’s homes,” Edwards said.
Planning Board Chairman David Webber said his board has focused its work over the summer and fall on housing, with the main concern single-family homes being converted into rental units.
The series of Planning Board written articles, along with petition articles proposed by a group calling itself the Coalition of Amherst Neighborhoods, will be taken up Wednesday. They come in advance of next spring’s annual Town Meeting, when a comprehensive rental registration system, which will include mandated inspections, parking plans and penalties for non-compliance, will be presented as a general bylaw.
Rolf Karlstrom of Precinct 10 offered a presentation showing the growing number of rental properties in neighborhoods adjacent to the University of Massachusetts and demonstrating that most nuisance calls were associated with non-owner-occupied rentals.
“In our neighborhood there was a perfect correlation between owner occupancy and whether the house was a nuisance,” Karlstrom said.
Baer Tierkel of Precinct 4 said restricting property rights and slowing the growth of the rental market are ways of discriminating against renters. He opposed both articles that would require special permit applications.
“I personally value multi-generation, people who are young, people who are old, who can’t afford to buy houses in our neighborhoods,” Tierkel said.
Niels la Cour of Precinct 1 said the fundamental problem facing the town is that it has not kept up with the demand for housing stock because Town Meeting has refused to allow denser development in village centers.
James Perot of Precinct 1 disputed this, observing that the housing problem is caused by the university’s inability to provide enough campus beds.
Lisa Kleinholz of Precinct 6 argued Town Meeting should have supported the special permit requirement for single-family rentals because police responses to these homes are costing all taxpayers.
By voice vote, Town Meeting clarified the definition for lodging and boarding houses, in which between six and 10 people could rent rooms at these properties. “This definition really envisions an old-fashioned boarding house with an adult in charge,” Webber said.
No kitchens would be allowed in the rooms and an owner or resident manager must be present on the premises.
The town’s legislative body also created definitions for terms including “dwelling unit,” “principal residence” and “resident manager,” and revised the definitions for “family” to recognize civil unions and legal guardianship.
Webber said resident managers are a cornerstone of some of the zoning changes being proposed. “This is designed to make sure someone is minding the store,” Webber said.