‘Tragedy of the Commons’ being acted out in Portsmouth

Posted 4/15/24

To the editor:

“The Tragedy of the Commons.” This is the economic and public policy situation when an individual’s actions taken in their best interest and using entirely legal …

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‘Tragedy of the Commons’ being acted out in Portsmouth


To the editor:

“The Tragedy of the Commons.” This is the economic and public policy situation when an individual’s actions taken in their best interest and using entirely legal means results in the harmful overconsumption of a public good. 

I saw this reality being acted out in the Portsmouth public meeting about short term rentals (STRs). At least 20 individual investors spoke defending their investment in a commercial business being allowed to operate in a residential zone. None denied that it was a commercial investment, by pretending to live on the site. Rather, they tried to distinguish their investment by saying it did not violate town regulations re noise, parking or septic overuse. They had an American right to maximize profits. That may even be mostly true, but it is not the fundamental point. 

Note that these investors owned but a small percentage of the more than 150 Portsmouth homes presumed to be STRs, and perhaps as many as 200 using the Newport standard for underreporting of STRs. I also saw a number of homeowners say that while excessive noise and overcrowding of their desirable neighborhood was offensive, a larger problem was its transformation. 

Notice I say desirable neighborhood. STRs go primarily where there is water access and/or views, in particular see Island Park, Common Fence Point, Aquidneck Avenue, McCorrie Lane. Here speakers pointed out that they were being surrounded by STRs. Even if they don’t technically violate the nearly unenforceable regulation regarding noise, having your neighbors change every weekend much of the year, with parking stretched to the maximum limits, is hardly what a residential neighborhood traditionally looks or feels like. Surrounded by STRs can you responsibly raise your family or enjoy living in peaceful retirement? 

But Portsmouth’s tragedy is that in these neighborhoods it soon won’t matter what residential long-term residents think, because they are increasing being bought out. In real estate there is the concept of “highest and best use”; this is the euphemism for highest price. The STR investor, as demonstrated by the enthusiasm at the town meeting, will nearly always be the “highest and best user.” 

The retired public servant, like Mrs. Panaggio, retired Portsmouth school teacher living in Island Park, will be driven from her home by the constant public party surrounding her. You can be certain the next buyer will not be a small family owning their “starter home” or a retired police officer, but a triumphant STR investor. The constant public party atmosphere is not their problem, they don’t actually live there after all. 

In February 2018 the town planner thought that we had 25 STRs. My count was more like 70, but now we have somewhere between 150-200, a compound annual growth rate of about 20 to 25 percent. In another five years will we have more than 300 or 400? 

This is the Tragedy of the Commons being acted out in Portsmouth. Our most desirable neighborhoods are being hollowed out, increasingly owned by investors (some local, mostly not), whose individual pursuit of entirely legal profits, at the expense of the rest of their neighbors, diminishes us all. Is this really the Portsmouth we would plan for?

Without planning to, the current STR regulations and the failure to enforce their violations, facilitate this tragedy of Portsmouth’s common understanding of who we have been as a town for 385 years. The town planner’s attempt to limit the destruction of Island Park as a home for small families, retired individuals and traditional long-term renters is a vital first step that must be supported by the Town Council and should be expanded to other neighborhoods as Newport has already done. 

James Moore 

217 Indian Ave.


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Mike Rego has worked at East Bay Newspapers since 2001, helping the company launch The Westport Shorelines. He soon after became a Sports Editor, spending the next 10-plus years in that role before taking over as editor of The East Providence Post in February of 2012. To contact Mike about The Post or to submit information, suggest story ideas or photo opportunities, etc. in East Providence, email mrego@eastbaymediagroup.com.