Portsmouth short-term rental owners denounce proposed changes

No action taken on zoning change that would ban new STRs in R-10 areas

By Jim McGaw
Posted 3/27/24

A proposed change to the town’s zoning ordinance that would ban new short-term rentals (STRs) in R-10-zoned areas was roundly condemned by the majority of residents who spoke at a public hearing Monday night.

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Portsmouth short-term rental owners denounce proposed changes

No action taken on zoning change that would ban new STRs in R-10 areas


PORTSMOUTH — A proposed change to the town’s zoning ordinance that would ban new short-term rentals (STRs) in R-10-zoned areas was roundly condemned by the majority of residents who spoke at a public hearing Monday night.

The Town Council took no action after hearing from residents — and an attorney representing a group of local STR owners — for about 90 minutes.

Under the proposed amendments to the zoning ordinance and its Short-Term Rental of Residential Dwellings Ordinance, “the rental, lease, or other contractual arrangement for the occupation of a (residential) dwelling unit by a tenant for residential and/or dwelling purposes, for any period of less than 31 consecutive days,” would not be permitted in R-10-zoned properties. 

R-10 residential districts, which have a minimum lot size of 10,000 square feet, are especially common in Island Park and Common Fence Point, where any adopted changes would have the greatest impact. Under the proposed amendments, the rental, lease or other arrangement for the occupation of an accessory dwelling unit for the same short time period would also be banned in an R-10 zone.

Short-term rentals of dwellings or accessory units would be permitted in R-20, R-20, R-40, and R-60 zones. They would not be permitted in commercial, light or heavy industrial, waterfront, or the Town Center districts.

The amendment would apply only to new STRs in R-10 zones. According to Town Planner Lea Hitchen, there were 137 STRs registered with the town as of Dec. 31, 2023, and 55 of them are in R-10 zones.

When the ordinance was first adopted in 2018, there just 25 STRs in town, she said. “The town is a microcosm of how STRs have grown nationally and internationally,” Hitchen said.

The original ordinance was written after some abutters complained about parking issues, noise, drinking and other problems they said had lowered their quality of life. The current ordinance requires owners of short-term rental properties to register with the town, abide by occupancy limits, provide enough off-street parking for renters and to follow several other rules.

Not fair, some say

But many owners of STRs in R-10 zones said the council should make no changes to the current ordinance.

“This proposal is completely inequitable — it’s targeting. It infringes on my rights to rent my home to whomever I want, whenever I want,” said Bill Brown, who occasionally rents out his Gould Avenue home in Island Park.

Addressing the complaints often lodged against such rentals — “There are multiple complainers that make multiple complaints on the same day,” he said — Brown inferred that STR owners are paying for the sins of others. 

Drive around Portsmouth, he said, and you’ll find trash in people’s yards, junked vehicles, buildings that need significant repairs, and other problems. “You can be assured — those are not short-term rentals,” he said. “I only accept guests that are vetted. If they don’t meet my criteria, they don’t get to come to my property.”

Town records show were only 21 complaints filed against STRs in Portsmouth in three and a half years, said Brown, adding that STRs represent less than 1 percent of the entire housing stock in Rhode Island.

Brown and other STR owners said they rent to a wide swath of people who are not just vacationers but people in town for a wedding, sailors, seasonal workers, parents visiting children attending Roger Williams University, and others. 

Michael Resnick, an attorney hired by Brown and other local STR owners who are in the process of forming a nonprofit coalition to represent their interests, said it would be inappropriate for the council to take action at this time. 

“The state of land use law in Rhode Island is in flux,” Resnick said, noting the R.I. General Assembly is considering legislation to address STRs now, so it would be best to wait and see what happens statewide.

There were only five complaints lodged against STRs in 2023, and just one so far this year, he pointed out. “Five complaints for 137 registered STRs? I would say your ordinance is working,” he said.

Resnick suggested that at the very least, the council should forward the amendments to the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Review for their opinions. (The council later voted to refer the zoning portions of the proposal to just the Planning Board for an advisory opinion, after Town Solicitor Kevin Gavin said that would be more appropriate.)

Fire code questioned

Resnick also took issue with some of the fire safety regulations and fees, fines for violations, and the insurance requirement under the proposed amendments. 

In a lengthy presentation that demonstrated how difficult it is to apply the Rhode Island Fire Safety Code to STRs, Fire Chief Paul Ford said some of these rentals would fall under the definition of a “lodging or rooming house” if they provide sleeping accommodations without separate cooking facilities for four to 16 people on either a transient or permanent basis. 

Lodging or rooming houses require a higher level of protection, including sprinklers and a supervised fire alarm season. “The more people you have in a building, and the more transient they are, the (fire) code expands to afford more protections,” Ford said.

Resnick said the council has no authority to “codify the fire code in any way, shape or form,” adding that only the General Assembly may change the application of the code.

Council member Daniela Abbott said she doesn’t believe it would be in the best interests of the town to require the owners of a single-family home with an STR to install an expensive sprinkler system. The fire chief, however, said it may be necessary in some cases.

As for the fines for general violations, they call for $200 per day for a first violation, $400 per day for a second, and $800 per day for a third and each subsequent violation. Resnick labeled the fines “draconian” under the 6th Amendment, and would be subject to appeal.

The amendment also requires a rider requiring a minimum liability coverage of $1 million that lists the Town of Portsmouth as an “additional insured.” Resnick said he didn’t believe any company would honor the requirement because the town has no interest in the property.

“It would amount to a de facto complete ban on short-term rentals. You can’t get insurance if you don’t own it,” said Resnick.

‘I’ll call them hotels’

Not everyone who spoke Monday were fans of STRs, however. Joe Forgione, of Aquidneck Avenue, said the STR ordinance was originally envisioned for residents renting out a section of their own home. But now out-of-state investors are buying up homes and converting them into STRs, he said.

“Most of the owners are not from Portsmouth, (they’re) not from Rhode Island. “I’ll call them hotels. You can’t convince me in any way that they're anything but hotels," said Forgione, adding he’s seen six cars outside a nearby STR with young people coming in from Massachusetts for a weekend party.

Peter Roberts, or Omerod Avenue, said an STR located at Walnut Street and Mason Avenue in Island Park had constant parties with 25 to 35 people, with cars parked in front of mailboxes, gates and driveways. 

“The noise was unbelievable,” said Roberts, adding that the town needed “to get ahead of this.”

‘A few bad boys’

Most people who spoke Monday, however, said the “party houses” were the exception to the rule.

Emily Edwards, of John Oldham Road on Prudence Island, said she didn’t understand why STRs were being “targeted” since longterm renters and other residents violate the law as well.

“My short-term rentals are much more conscientious than my longterm,” Edwards said, adding that the town should not “put the hammer down on all of us because of a few bad boys.”

Another Prudence resident, who lives on Daniel Avenue, said everything is zoned R-10 on the island. “That would mean a complete ban of STRs on Prudence Island,” he said.

Ariela Herzog, of Power Street, said STRs help bring more revenue to the town and that numerous local businesses wouldn’t exist without summer rentals. She also said outright bans don’t address the problem. “It’s enforcing that addresses that issue,” Herzog said.

Council members Leonard Katzman and Abbott both said they didn’t support a blanket ban on new STRs in R-10 zones, but rather better enforcement to curb bad behavior.

“The town should not punish good, conscientious property owners because of the bad actions of others,” Katzman said.

Abbott agreed, adding that “Portsmouth doesn’t have many lodging options,” and that STRs “are a great asset to have” when family members come into town for a special event such as a graduation.

Perhaps capping STRs in R-10 zones would be more reasonable, she suggested.

short-term rentals, Portsmouth Town Council, zoning ordinance, STR

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