Chester enacts six-month STR moratorium

Chester, Vt.

CHESTER, Vt. – The Chester Selectboard met on Wednesday, Sept. 6, beginning by appointing several members to two different committees.

First, Chester resident Michael Leclaire was appointed to the citizens advisory committee, which works with the Chester Police Department to develop community policing strategies. Leclair is a 27-year veteran of the Vermont State Police, after which he spent 21 years working in local schools and coaching high school softball. Leclair is replacing outgoing member Samantha Snedorf-Bailey.

The board then moved on to appointing members to the newly formed housing commission, which aims to develop strategies to address the ongoing issue of lack of affordable housing in Chester, an issue which faces many towns across Vermont. After hearing from the four individuals who volunteered for the commission, the selectboard appointed all to the housing commission for terms ranging from three years to one year, in order to stagger appointments. In the future, all members will be appointed to three-year terms. The housing commission has a flexible number of members, between five and nine, and town manager Julie Hance noted that she will continue to look for someone who works in the nonprofit housing sector to serve on the board.

The majority of the meeting focused on the ongoing issue of short-term rentals (STR) in Chester. As noted at the previous meeting in August, Chester had contracted with Granicus, a company that provides software and services related to STR data collection and registries. While Chester’s STR registry had initially been planned to go into effect on April 1 of this year, as of the August meeting, Granicus had only recently appointed a project manager to Chester’s STR registry project.

Town planner and zoning administrator Preston Bristow told the board that, shortly after the previous meeting, he had met with the project manager whom Granicus had assigned to Chester, and had been told that they still could not give any specifics on a date by which the online registration system for STR owners would be in place, though they “hoped” it would happen “by November.” Despite this, Granicus has succeeded in collecting data about currently operational STRs in Chester, and as such, the town had begun to use this data to send letters to those currently operating STRs, informing them of the need to register their STR with the town. For now, town employees would be handling the registration paperwork, with plans to institute an online registration system developed by Granicus in the future.

Because of this lack of progress, Bristow and Hance proposed a six-month moratorium on new STRs in Chester to allow the town to continue to gather information, a proposal which met with significant discussion from residents, both in favor and in opposition.

The selectboard generally favored a moratorium, though the specifics were the subject of much back and forth. Board member Peter Hudkins suggested that the moratorium be applied only to property transactions within Chester occurring after the moratorium, meaning that anyone who currently owned property and wished to turn all or part of it into a STR could do so. Selectboard Chair Arne Jonynas felt that Hudkins’ proposal did not go far enough, and instead suggested that any STR application coming from a property which Granicus had not already identified as an operational STR be denied for six months.

Much of the concern surrounded Chester’s historic Stone Village, which Bristow told the board was in danger of becoming primarily STRs. “There is a real sensitivity that the Stone Village could very easily become a little hotel center,” Bristow told the board.

Speaking as a citizen, and emphasizing that his views did not necessarily represent the views of the planning commission, Hugh Quinn, planning commission chair, told the board that the Vermont Short Term Rental Alliance (VTSTRA), a lobbying group representing STR owners in the state, had endorsed the notion of a waiting period after a home is sold before it may be rented as an STR. “It’s intended to basically prevent real estate investors and businessmen from purchasing homes for the sole purpose of short term rentals, that they will never live in, and they will not participate in the community,” Quinn said.

Several members of the Chester community took issue with the moratorium proposal, among them Stone Village resident and hosted-STR owner Ian Montgomery. “There’s this boogeyman that you’re all afraid of, big investors coming in and buying up Chester,” Montgomery chided the board, saying in his experience most STR owners are second homeowners who participate in the community, and occasionally rent out their homes. Montgomery also felt that the moratorium was overreach on the part of the town government.

Board member Arianna Knapp stressed that the moratorium was being proposed in response to concern from a large enough number of citizens of Chester, and was intended to give the board time to gather information and decide whether or not regulations on STRs were warranted, emphasizing that Chester was not currently discussing any regulations on STRs beyond the moratorium, and that the moratorium would not affect any currently-operational STRs. “We have been asked by the town of Chester to address this issue, which many people feel passionately about on both sides,” Knapp said. “In order for us to gather information, we need to stop the forward progress briefly.”

When Selectboard Chair Arne Jonynas made a motion to enact a moratorium on new STRs in Chester effective immediately, discussion ensued, led by Hudkins and Knapp, in support of the moratorium, but taking issue with the effective date. The resolution was amended to change the effective date to Oct. 1, and passed with the consent of all members present (Board member Heather Chase was absent.)

The Chester Selectboard meets the first and third Wednesdays of the month, at 6:30 p.m., in the Chester Town Hall.

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