Closed to Business: Zoning Board Nix Permits for Dunkin’ Donuts, Airbnb

Photo: Brighton Street’s Russell Mann at the ZBA meeting Jan. 11. 

Belmont’s reputation as a hard nut for businesses to crack was put in the spotlight Monday night, Jan. 11, as the Zoning Board of Appeals voted down applications for permits from two entrepreneurs.

In a pair of 3-2 votes, the board denied a special permit to the owner of 20 Dunkin’ Donut franchisees from opening his first shop in Belmont due to traffic and parking concerns.

Earlier, a request by a homeowner that would allow her to rent rooms to short-term visitors through the website Airbnb was rebuffed for allegations of safety and quality of life issues, concerns that two ZBA member dismissed as “red herrings.” 

After the Airbnb vote, a ZBA member who voted to issue the permit suggested the homeowner just skirt the town’s bylaw until the town creates new guidelines for this modern disruptive rental scheme. 

In a packed Belmont Gallery of Arts, more than 75 residents assembled to oppose many of the applications before the board in a meeting that took four hours to place a damper on 

The application that sparked the most interest came from the Leo Family which sought to build a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise in a three-store strip mall at 344 Pleasant St. The Leos – son Nicholas and father Vincent – purchased the service station/former gas station for $1 million in 2014 with the intention to run “an excellent business” like his existing stores nearby in Fresh Pond and Massachusetts Avenue, said Nicholas Leo. 

Anticipating questions about traffic to and from the site, the Leo’s traffic consultant David Giangrande, president of the transportation and civil engineering/land surveying firm Design Consultants, Inc., of Somerville, conducted a trip study analysis showing that a donut shop would generate 24 percent fewer trips than a service station over an hour during the morning rush, or about 75 customers.

But those assumptions were challenged by several members pointing out much of the data was gleaned through “industry standards” for businesses of that size, which did not take into effect traffic needing to cut across the street to enter the operation. 

Supporters of the Leo’s plan such as Timothy McCarthy of Simmons Avenue said the proposal would be “a great use” as he and his neighbors are “tired of the vacant and abandoned” service station. 

But many at the meeting opposed what they viewed as a high volume, fast food establishment that will attract vehicular traffic to an already congested intersection.

Russell Mann, an immediate abutter on Brighton Street, worried that the increase in traffic would create bigger traffic delays as vehicles heading towards Belmont Center on Pleasant Street attempted to take a left-hand turn into the strip mall that, with 21 parking spaces, is not enough for the activity the store hopes to bring in. 

“This is not a referendum on development of the property, or on the Leos … who run a good business. It’s about this special permit for use of fast food is appropriate for this location,” he said. 

Others noted that several parking spaces will be occupied by monitoring equipment as the location is under a government order to remediate the soil of dangerous levels of contaminants while some pointed to early-morning deliveries and assumptions that employees would park on neighborhood streets.

In the end, ZBA Chairman Eric Smith and Tino Lichauco who were not comfortable with the assumptions made in the traffic study and possible issues with parking which Smith felt was limiting. 

A dejected Leo, who stayed the four hours waiting for the decision, would not comment on whether he would appeal the vote nor would speculate on the future of the site. The location is zone “as right” for a retail operation such as a convenience store. 

The outcome of Anne Levy’s request to allow her to rent a room legally for less than a week in her Taylor split-level through the rental website Airbnb.

With the Planning Board deciding to push off reviewing the town’s lodging bylaws concerning this new way of boarding visitors, it was unlikely that the ZBA members would change their vote when they denied a special permit last month for an Airbnb host. (Currently, homeowner can rent a room for more than a week “as right”; yet most Airbnb rentals are for between two-to-four days.)

As with the first Airbnb case, some neighbors worried their quiet street would soon resemble a bustling tourist-lodging location with strangers in “Uber cars” coming at all hours of the night. 

While accepting member Jim Zarkadas’ no vote on the principle that the Planning Board needs to set the regulations, Lichauco and member Craig White, who along with Smith voted to approve the application, criticized the objections raised that an Airbnb rental is inherently unsafe and un-neighborly as fearmongering.

After the vote, Lichauco made the suggestion to the estimated 65 residents who rent via Airbnb: Simply make the customers sign a one-week lease and “reimburse” them for the days they don’t need the room all in the same transaction. 

“If they wish to do so, it is up to them. However, I am not going to advise them to do so,” said Ara Yogurtian, assistant director of community development. 

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. 

ZBA Grounds Airbnb, Punts Internet Lodging to Planning Board

Photo: The room that Joanne Sintiris rents for $85 a night as an Airbnb host.

Joanne Sintiris found herself uncomfortably close to the edge of a financial cliff. 

A divorce left the Betts Road resident wrestling to make ends meet and seeking some way to make a little extra money. 

“I needed some way to supplement my income. It was hard to see how I was going to do that,” she said.

Then Sintiris discovered the wildly popular online service Airbnb where homeowners can rent out one or more rooms in their house, condo or apartment for a nightly, weekly or monthly fee.

“It turned out to be a real savoir,” said Sintiris, who rents a spare room out for $85 a night, below the $135 average for the Boston area.

The “room” includes a private entrance, one bedroom, living room, private bathroom, use of a washer/dryer, a shared garden and patio with a grill.

“It was crazy. I was turning people away, many people who I didn’t want,” said the Cambridge native. 

And her guests raved about the experience.

“Joanne was a wonderful host, she was easy to communicate with, friendly, and we felt very welcome in the apartment. The location was quiet, relaxing, yet still easy to get to the best parts of Boston,” wrote a lodger who stayed in October.

Sintiris will now see her windfall slashed dramatically after the Belmont Zoning Board of Appeals Monday night, Dec. 7, rejected her request by a single vote for a special permit to would allow her to continue renting the room for less than seven days.

In a debate that once veered off to include the threat of sex offenders and all guests requiring CORI background checks, the board Monday essentially punted the issue off to the Planning Board, which will be asked to create, or at least, modernize the town’s antiquated lodging and boarder bylaws for the 250 residents who host Airbnb visitors in Belmont.

“If it is correct that there will be 250 people with rooms to rent, then in that case it must be thought out in a comprehensive way which is the role of the Planning Board,” said ZBA Chairman Eric Smith. 

Sintiris’ case is the first of what could be several hundred the Office of Community Development anticipates to bring before the ZBA. The town contends that under existing town bylaws, anyone renting for less than seven days must obtain a special permit under the town’s bylaws. Sintiris just happened to be the first Airbnb provider plucked from the website to be required to rent the room for seven plus days. 

Since a majority of lodgers stay less than four days, Sintiris sought the special permit since those potential customers are decamping across the town line in Cambridge (with a 1,000 Airbnb listings), Boston (2,000), and other neighboring communities that have no or very limited restrictions.

“I need to have the flexibility to provide a room for a weekend or a week,” she said.

Airbnb is now one of the biggest success stories coming from the new internet service industry, reporting Monday a net worth exceeding $25 billion.

While there is the occasional sensational negative event, Airbnb have become the “go to” lodging experience for a rapidly growing number of travels around the world. In the seven years since Airbnb was founded, more than 60 million people have used the service, listing almost two million homes in 34,000 cities (Paris alone has 60,000 hosts) in approximately 190 countries worldwide.

Municipalities have scratched the surface of regulating these new fangled rentals; Somerville proposed a six percent tax (but had no way of implementing it) and Boston is pondering restrictions.

For the handful of residents who opposed the special permit, the issues created by this “disrubting ” range from noise to fear of those coming into the community. 

Opponents such as Patrice Shea of Talyor Street, who lives close by another Airbnb location, said her street has vehicles coming in “from all over the country” in addition to “Uber cars” – the online, on-demand car service – as people arriving at “very unusual hours,” while many strangers are seen walking with suitcases on the sidewalk. She also wondered if the town wasn’t loss of town revenued in taxes and fees.

“It’s just plain creepy,” Shea said after her testimony. 

“I get the fiscal benefit to the host … and the renter, they pay less money. [But] what does it do to me?” said JP Looney who lives eight houses up Betts from Sintiris, wondering if “a boarding house” in the vacinity will likely reduce his property values.

Looney also pondered safety issues with unfamiliar people coming into the area.

“Is Airbnb doing a criminal background check? That’s not what I understand from the website,” Looney ask. “We are opening up a can of worms by allowing this.”

Picking up on the critic’s line of questioning, board member Nicholas Iannuzzi said without CORI and sexual offendors background checks, “you should in fear of our own safety with anyone in your house for $85 a night.” 

Sintiris countered that she has had a “great experience with everyone,” including university educators and professionals who are coming to town for work or to visit children at school.  

In the end, the board voted 3-2 (Iannuzzi and Jim Zarkadas voting no) in favor of Sintiris’ special permit; while a purality, it was one vote shy of the necessary threshold for the issuance of the license. 

While Iannuzzi’s negative response was towards the distrubtor aspect of the technology, Zarkadas’ ran towards finding a more precise definition of the town’s lodging bylaws.

“It really is up to the Planning Board to make updated laws because there has been a lot of changes and I’m pretty sure they were written back in … the 1800s. While I’m open to business, but when it starts to cross the line of running and operating a business in a neighborhood, there is a lot of unknowns that need to answered,” he said.

Sami Baghdady, the current chair of the Board of Selectmen and former chair of the Planning Board, said it is incumbent for the bylaw writing entity to fill in the gaps in taxes, zoning and licenses that new technology brings to the town.

“The Planning Board needs to address this quite quickly, just because there is more than 200 units now doing business,” he said.

For Sintiris, the change to seven days minimum stay that began this fall “has already hurt me,” saying the current regulations has cut her income by $1,000 a month. 

“I’m not asking for much. Just enough,” she said.