Freedom—January 5, 2022—Freedom will hold a Planning Board hearing at 7 p.m. tonight, Thursday, January 6, at Town Hall, for the public to ask questions and comment on proposed changes to town zoning aimed at addressing a housing trend that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
The trend is the growth of short-term rentals, or STRs, which the town defines as “the provision of transient lodging for compensation in the primary dwelling unit…for stays of between one and twenty-nine consecutive nights…where the dwelling unit would normally be considered a residential living unit not associated with regulated commercial activities such as a hotel, motel, or bed-and-breakfast.”
Freedom has long had a housing rental market, and has a zoning ordinance provision that accommodates “tourist homes,” which means a “lodging” arrangement in a residential property in certain zones. The hitch is that the home must be the owner’s primary residence.
The proliferation of online STR sites like Airbnb, Home Away and Vrbo made it easy and cheap for property owners to market and rent their homes, and the lure proved irresistible to many. That opened the door to properties in Freedom that are not the owner’s primary home being rented out repeatedly on a short-term basis.
Complaints about STRs—typically reported by abutters fed up with party noise, barking dogs or rude behavior by transients—began to appear on the Code Enforcement Officer’s radar and at the Planning Board starting around August 2019, according to meeting minutes.
By January 2020, concerns had spread to the Select Board, which reviewed advertisements promoting two-bedroom homes that could “sleep up to 12 people.” Thoughts about fire safety and overtaxed septic systems—especially in the shorefront district—led the town to consider contacting state legislators to oppose proposed legislation that would have limited the town’s ability to regulate the rentals.
All of that was put on hold due to the chaos of the pandemic that began that spring, in 2020, when people flocked to the lake in record numbers, including to STRs. The plan to create town regulations surfaced again last spring, resulting in proposed language for the ordinance that was posted on the town website on November 1.
Purpose of the Regulation
The town’s stated goal is to protect water quality and ensure the safety of rental occupants, while preserving the “traditional character of residential neighborhoods…and the quality and quantity of housing stock for year-round use.”
In one option on the table, STRs would be a permitted use in all districts, but the total number in a given district would be limited according to a formula that would be set by the town. Property owners engaging in STR activity would have to pay a fee and obtain a permit from the town, and annual STR use of their property would be capped at 45 days per calendar year.
A grandfathering provision would provide relief for those who can demonstrate they had been renting prior to the adoption of the ordinance, such as showing rental receipts or payments of meals and rooms taxes to the state.
STRs have been a divisive issue in surrounding towns, and Freedom’s proposal has garnered opposition in the two months since the regulations were posted. The focal point of opposition is a Facebook group called “Courteous Freedom in Freedom NH.”
It’s administered by four people, including Helen Cheese-Probert, a resident of Great Britain who owns rental property on Danforth Pond, and Paul Mayer, owner of Black Bear Realty in Glen, NH. Also, Stephanie Wildoner, a principal of Upcountry Property Services in Tamworth, and Kyle Clifton of Boston, who owns a rental property in Freedom near the lake.
The 100 or so supporters of the group include individuals ranging from property managers and caretakers, to libertarians who believe STR restrictions infringe on individual property rights.
In their postings, the group’s administrators say they support regulation that reflects “quality landlords renting to quality renters.” What they oppose is “Draconian Restrictions to Short Term Rentals,” by which is meant restrictions on the number of renters and the length of their stay. They have urged their supporters to attend Thursday night’s meeting.
Also engaged in the Freedom debate is the Mount Washington Valley Association for Responsible Vacation Rentals, an advocacy group for property owner’s rights comprised of individuals who own second homes—and in some cases vacation rental businesses—in the Conway area.
The group’s website indicates it has applied for tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)6 of the Internal Revenue Code, which provides for the exemption of business leagues, chambers of commerce, real estate boards, boards of trade which are not organized for profit.
In a December 3 letter to the Freedom Select Board on behalf of the advocacy group, Attorney Mark Puffer of the firm PretiFlaherty addressed Freedom’s town counsel’s assertion that STRs in the town “were prohibited because they were not expressly permitted” by the zoning ordinance.
In his letter, Puffer argues that “it is clear that the short-term rental of a ‘dwelling unit’ is not prohibited by the [zoning ordinance].”
“Renting one’s property is a natural incident of owning it,” he wrote. “Unless a zoning ordinance specifically provides that a single-family residence be “owner-occupied” or provides that short-term rentals…are prohibited, then such rentals are allowed as a natural incident of owning the property.”
Puffer concluded by saying his client would prefer not to litigate the issue, but instead wait for state legislation.