With Full Slate, Planning Punts Possible Airbnb Regs to Summer Review

Photo: The Airbnb web page for Belmont.

With so much currently on its plate and with little data to move forward on, Belmont’s Planning Board decided to “punt” for now on a review of the town’s bylaws in respect to residents who rent rooms through Airbnb, the popular website for people to list, find and rent lodging.

“We are not scrapping for items to take up,” said Liz Allison, Planning Board chair at the board’s Tuesday, Dec. 5 public meeting, as its members decided it would take up a comprehensive review of the town’s bylaws this summer of this new way of casual lodging for people in the market for “something between hotels and couch-surfing.”

Since starting in 2008, the private company, now valued at more than $20 billion, has more than 1,500,000 listings in 34,000 cities and 190 countries. Approximately 1 million rooms worldwide were rented using the website for the New Year’s Eve/Day celebration.

While close to Boston and Cambridge, which have hundreds of Airbnb hosts renting thousands of spaces, Belmont is like many suburban communities, with just over two dozen hosts currently lending room(s) from between $49 a night for a double bed off Belmont Street to $333 a night for a room and bath on Belmont Hill. The average per night rental in Belmont is $132.

Under existing Belmont zoning code, residents who rent rooms through Airbnb are viewed as a bed and breakfast. Those residents living in the general residential area can “by right” to rent up to three bedrooms as long as it is for a week or longer.

Those seeking to provide rooms for fewer than seven days requires a Special Permit, which are granted or rejected by the Zoning Board of Appeals. 

Since most Airbnb rentals are two to four nights, it’s likely many hosts will be impacted by a negative ZBA vote.

Last month, the ZBA voted 3-2 to approve the first Special Permit for an Airbnb “host” on Betts Road but since a “Special” requires a “super majority,” the application was rejected. 

Several ZBA members, including one who voted against the request, said they wanted to seek guidance from the Planning Board for a more precise definition of the town’s lodging bylaws.

Residents opposed to the new web-based rental said last month they view Airbnb as a quality of life issue, projecting strangers with rolling suitcases roaming town streets, being brought to residences by “Uber cars” at all hours of the day and night.

There have been attempts by municipalities to place restrictions on the business model, mostly by large cities protecting hotel tax revenue. San Francisco required Airbnb to charge a 14 percent hotel tax yet failed to limit rooms being rented out for more than 75 days consecutively annually. Boston is contemplating regulations while Somerville attempted to impose a six percent tax but had no way of collecting the fee. 

Allison noted currently none of the surrounding towns comparable to Belmont – such as Arlington, Winchester, Bedford, Lexington to name four – “have as yet any zoning regulation” for Airbnb rentals.

“This is clearly a new area” and while there is a discussion on the subject, “there are no models within comparable communities,” said Allison, adding that it would be advantageous for the Planning Board to learn from the experience of other towns before imposing its regulations.

Since there are approximately 30 Airbnb hosts in town, the board unanimously decided to make a review of existing bylaws “a summer project” after the Planning Board clears its plate of current projects including work on imposing height and size restrictions on new construction, in general residential zone district. 

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