Finally — STR sanity

By Ralph Wallace | Feb 18, 2021

Rockport — Finally, the Rockport Board of Selectmen (four out of five) did the right thing. They listened to both sides of the issue and tabled the unnecessary and punishing short term rental (STR) ordinances. It took real pluck for Denise Munger, one of the authors of those stultifying ordinances, to introduce the motion to table.

The ensuing discussion on the motion was bookended by two selectman comments - Mark Kelly’s effusive, “…people will be dancing in the streets,” and Jeff Hamilton’s bitter, “…this vote is the result of one percent of the town’s population getting their way.” With respect to the former, is it not, somehow, a little sad that great celebration is warranted merely for the BOS doing the right thing? And with respect to the latter – no, Mr. Hamilton, you are, ironically, dead wrong. Your “one percent” comment is more fairly attributed to the limited and timorous voices of the few supporters whose whiny complaints drove the STR debacle. Furthermore, had the now-canceled hearing gone forward, the BOS would have been swamped with comments from outraged, non-STR owners and a stunning list of businesses in support of residents who are simply struggling to pay their property taxes, keep their homes, and in so doing, provide a major boost to the town’s tourist economy.

The Rockport STR controversy presents a fascinating study of wrongheaded, activist town government – the antithesis of a caring, whole-community oversight for which small New England towns are celebrated. My wife and I have lived and worked in three such communities, and when we came to Rockport, we were delighted to find that the town was similarly well governed. The years-long, highly-engaged, endlessly-detailed pursuit of a new library was a sterling example of discernment of community will. In fact, it was almost democracy overload.

In contrast to this type of sober, needs-based approach, Chairman, Debra Hall, and a small group of town officials reflected upon their own grievances, listened to a paucity of other minor complaints, and determined that nine pages of odious ordinances were in order. Hall rather childishly opined that, since other towns had STR ordinances, Rockport should too. We all remember being admonished by our mothers for that logic. Further, an analysis of those other towns likely shows that they, indeed, had a problem. Rockport does not – revealed by a two-year police report showing no complaints as well as a short list of disgruntled complainants whose underlying theme was hurt feelings and snobbery regarding people from away “stealing” our precious “village vibe.”

Sadly, apart from not presenting a real need for ordinances, the BOS displayed a very limited and unfair “hearing” process. Hall disingenuously claims there “were more workshops on this issue than any other.” Translation – one in-person workshop when those opposed to regulations outnumbered those in favor, and two very inhibiting and frustrating Zoom workshops – again with those opposed in the clear majority. Curiously, in this so-called hearing process, Hall gave the same weight to residents who “support regulation, but who have been silent in the process,” as she did to those who showed up, commented and made their views known in the public arena. That is not how democratic government is supposed to work.

In closing, Rockport is a town of disparate wealth. There are residents who pay an annual property tax bill, that would wipe out the net worth of some people, by cutting a check and forgetting about it. Others are faced with a property tax that, while of a lesser amount, threatens their very ability to keep their homes. STR owners rent part of their homes to help defray those taxes and help with home ownership costs. In so doing, they also provide a much-needed boost to tourism and the town economy. One can only hope that, from now on, the Rockport “village vibe” will accommodate all of its collective citizenry – and perhaps, even warily, tolerate those curious folks from away.

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