Did you know that short-term rentals (STRs) have been permitted in Talbot County for almost 20 years? Over the last 10 years, STR licenses have increased at an alarming rate; according to a Planning & Zoning document, as of August 7, 2019, 142 licenses have been issued, a 58% increase from 2010 when 90 were issued.
As we sit here today, no one (not Planning & Zoning, not the STR Board and not the Talbot County Council) has an accurate count of all the STRs existing in Talbot County, let alone whether they are legal or illegal.
The above rate of growth is scary. But, it is not the scariest thing about STRs! Listen to the story about the frog and the pot of water. It goes like this:
If the frog is put into a pot of boiling water, it will jump right out!
However, if the frog is put into tepid water which is then brought slowly to a boil, it will not perceive the imminent danger and will be cooked to death.
This story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to or be aware of sinister threats that arise gradually rather than suddenly.
This is exactly what is happening in Talbot County with this rapid growth of STR licenses. The three frogs already in warm water are: Talbot County residents, those that have bought second homes in which to retire and our tourism economy. The temperature is rising. Our Next Step 190 legislation is to be respected for its efforts, but it has miles to go before a balanced temperature is found. In this small community, there are overlapping interests, many of which feel their interests are being ignored. Property rights and the character of neighborhoods are being pushed aside while non-residents (and pure investors) and the generation of more income and tourism to Talbot County is being favored. Talbot County needs a timeout so a better balance can be restored for the long-term health and well being of this great county in which we all live.
It is often argued that property rights are sacrosanct. Yet, zoning has always existed to balance property rights with citizen rights. Having an STR on your property is not an ownership right. It is a privilege granted by the county. This grant comes with important responsibilities including: operating the license according to all the rules of the code, respecting the rights of property owners surrounding the STR, and the preserving the character of the neighborhoods in which the STRs are located. If these are not followed, the character of the neighborhoods will break down and the fabric of our county will suffer.
So, I ask the STR Board and the Talbot County Council to declare a moratorium (of at least 6 months but no more than one year) on the issuance of any new STR licenses. In the meantime, the STR Board can deal with STR renewals. This moratorium time can be used to provide at least the following benefits for the County and its 37,000 residents:
1. Time to determine how many STRs actually exist, whether legal or illegal, and develop rigorous enforcement of and consequences for those who do not comply. The enforcement burden should not fall on the neighbors.
2. With that in place, pursue the illegal ones and either bring them into compliance or shut them down with appropriate fines and other action allowed by the code.
3. Sanction those legally licensed STRs that are “out of compliance,” such as, noise level and when an approved occupancy capacity is exceeded.
4. Fix the broken STR complaint system so that it works easily and equally well for both neighbors who live near STRs as well as those who rent the STRs.
5. Provide accurate online information accessible to all such as an electronic mapping system so the STR Board and others can knows how many STRs exist and their location and accurate, online lists of all applications.
6. Clarify the notification requirements — for when the STR applications are made and when the STR Board hearings on applications will take place — so all interested parties may attend and be heard. Consider holding STR Board meetings between 5 and 7 p.m. and encourage written statements to give working people more opportunity to be involved.
7. Clarify the roles of both the planning and zoning staff and the STR Board vis a vis renewals e.g. inclusion of complaints received by resident agents, criteria for determining duration of licenses.
8. Allow the STR Board and County Council time to answer the question: Why don’t we follow the good lead of Talbot County towns like Easton and St. Michaels when it comes to rules regarding licensing and controlling STR operations? Why should there be different rules about STRs depending on which side of Route 322 you live on?
9. Modify the role of the planning and zoning staff. Next Step 190’s regulations have shifted the discretion to grant new STR licenses to the Short Term Rental Board and should give that Board the power to determine which renewals come before them.
Recent publicity, nationwide and international, about STRs has raised the alarm. For instance, the Long Island Hamptons, which we are purported to resemble, is beginning to have the feel of an Ocean City. Thankfully we are not there yet. However, the purchase of the largest Talbot County vacation rental company by an Ocean City business is a great concern.
One last danger I want to point out for our friend, the frog. Here is a site for an article about Sedona, Arizona: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/07/27/vacation-rentals-killing-arizona-city-locals-say/1846713001/, where a citizen has identified the next step in what I would call runaway STR abuse … a contractor buying up land for the purpose of building large houses to be used (from the very beginning) solely as STRs. Locals there feel helpless as vacation rentals overrun them.
This is actually happening in Talbot County. I understand that there is a pending new STR application for a rental whose building is under construction. Could Talbot County become the next community that regrets allowing an unfettered proliferation of STRs?
Give the moratorium serious consideration. After all, who wants to have the same experience as the frog?
Howard E. Snyder writes from Easton.