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Portsmouth zoning law trouble for Airbnb

By KIMBERLEY HAAS
Union Leader Correspondent

September 10. 2017 11:32PM

Barbara Jenny bought the house next to hers for her daughter to move into someday, and wanted to rent it short-term on Airbnb, but the city of Portsmouth doesn't allow it. (KIMBERLEY HAAS/Union Leader Correspondent)

PORTSMOUTH — As New Hampshire Seacoast communities grapple with how to regulate homeowners who want to open their property to guests through Airbnb, Barbara Jenny of Portsmouth is hoping for some dialogue. Jenny is one of a handful of people who has been told by Portsmouth officials that those short-term rentals violate the city’s zoning law.

Officials do not track Airbnb rentals specifically, and city attorney Robert Sullivan says he estimates the total number of cease and desist orders issued this year for short-term rentals is less than 10.

Jenny, who lives with her family at 81 Lincoln Ave., bought neighboring 87 Lincoln Ave. last year with the intention that someday her 36-year-old daughter could live there. Jenny said she and her husband own rental properties in downtown Portsmouth and Kittery, Maine, so they decided that until their daughter and son-in-law were ready to move back to New Hampshire, she would rent the property at 87 Lincoln Ave. on a short-term basis on Airbnb when family was not using it.

“We thought we could make ends meet, at least, just by short-term renting it in between family visits,” Jenny said.

But before Jenny even rented out the house for the first time, she received a letter from the city attorney’s office, which said officials had heard from neighbor Peter Fernald, whose property is adjacent to the rental house. Fernald was complaining about her rental plans. Officials suggested that Jenny check in with them about the city’s zoning ordinance.

“My husband is a builder, and we own other properties, so we thought, ‘You know what? We know what’s going on. We’re good,’” Jenny said. “So, we just moved forward because we kind of knew what was happening in town and the word was you were good unless a neighbor complained.”

That is exactly what has happened over the course of the last few months, and now Jenny has received a cease and desist order from the city due to Fernald’s complaints. She hopes that will be appealed by the zoning board this fall, but in the meantime, Jenny cannot accept any new bookings on Airbnb.

Fernald could not be reached for comment.

Sullivan explained on Thursday that unless something is specifically allowed under Portsmouth’s zoning ordinance, it is not permissible. And any business owner who hosts people for a fee, regardless of how they book the property, has to make sure they follow city ordinances for bed and breakfasts or hotels.

Sullivan said that an administrative policy prohibits renting property for less than 30 days. That policy was created to protect residential neighborhoods, Sullivan said.

“One of the purposes of the zoning ordinance is to protect people from properties being used in a manner that is inconsistent with a neighborhood,” Sullivan said.

Jenny counters that argument by saying she has more control over Airbnb guests than tenants, because she can ask them to leave at any time if they break house rules. And so far, nobody has made a noise complaint or complained about congestion on the street because of parking.

In the neighboring towns of Hampton and Rye, bed and breakfasts are allowed, but owners must obtain a special exception by officials before they can start renting. There are other restrictions that apply in both towns, as well.

Kevin Schultz, the building inspector in Hampton, where a number of properties are rented throughout the summer months, said Airbnbs are considered bed and breakfasts for zoning purposes. Schultz said they have not had to issue and cease and desist orders for short-term rentals in several years.

Last year, Granite Staters hosted more than 95,000 visitors and earned more than $12 million from bookings made through Airbnb’s short-term rental website, the company reported in June. Conway topped the list with the greatest number of guest arrivals, followed by Lincoln, North Conway, Amherst and Bartlett.

Airbnb has 3,000 active hosts in New Hampshire. People can rent any type of property on the website, from a live-in school bus in Thornton to a Mother Moose Luxury Log Cabin in Danbury.

Hosts are required to collect a 9 percent meals and rentals tax for the state. Jenny said she and her husband have complied with that requirement, and they are paying their taxes.

“We are proud to work with local officials to find common sense policies that ensure hosts can responsibly share their home to earn extra money while also protecting quality of life, Airbnb spokesman Peter Schottenfels said via email on Tuesday.

“If a neighbor is concerned with a specific listing in their community, they can use our Neighbors Tool (www.airbnb.com/neighbors) to register their issue.”


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