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After tense debate, Amherst Town Meeting rejects permit plan for rentals

Even as most Town Meeting members acknowledged the growing problem of student rentals in residential neighborhoods, a tool to combat the conversions of single-family homes into rental properties was defeated Monday.

Following a long, testy debate that described an influx of absentee landlords as well as fears over governmental intrusion, Town Meeting rejected a zoning initiative that would have required homeowners to get permission if they wanted to rent single-family dwellings they don’t occupy.

Voting 113 to 68, the town’s legislative body rejected an effort to require such prospective landlords to obtain a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

But by voice vote, Town Meeting approved a similar zoning measure that will require owners seeking to rent duplexes they don’t live in to get special permits.

Town Manager John Musante said the tense debate showed how much concern there is in the community about rental properties and their impacts on neighborhoods.

“The anxiety is real,” he said.

An additional Planning Board-written article requiring a special permit process to rent so-called converted dwellings in residential zoning districts, and four petition articles drafted by a group calling itself the Coalition of Amherst Neighborhoods, which aim to put more restrictions on duplexes and impose financial penalties for behavior that occurs at rental properties on property owners, were expected to be taken up Wednesday.

They come in advance of next spring’s annual Town Meeting, when a comprehensive rental registration system, which will include mandated inspections, parking plans and penalties for non-compliance, will be presented as a general bylaw.

During the special permit discussion, Nina Wishengrad of Precinct 5 expressed fear of a loss of freedom.

“We can’t have intrusion into our personal decision-making regarding our properties,” Wishengrad said. “It’s scary to me.”

However, Paige Wilder of Precinct 10 said requiring a special permit would steer people toward renting to families and more responsible tenants.

“Why is it their right to rent their house out without rules?” asked Gerald Weiss of Precinct 8.

Planning Board member Robert Crowner said requiring a special permit if a home is not occupied by its owner gives neighbors a chance to assess the situation. “It doesn’t mean a no, it means there are conditions for that use,” Crowner said.

Yet many saw it like John Edwards of Precinct 9, who described the bylaw change as an alienation of property rights.

“I think what we have to work on is behavior, not these restrictions on people’s homes,” he said.

Select Board Chairwoman Stephanie O’Keeffe spoke against requiring a special permit to rent single-family homes, saying that it could depress the housing market in town. But she assured Town Meeting that the rental registration system would be ready by next May.

Rolf Karlstrom of Precinct 10 offered a presentation showing the growing number of rental properties in neighborhoods adjacent to the University of Massachusetts and demonstrating that most nuisance calls were associated with non-owner-occupied rentals.

“In our neighborhood there was a perfect correlation between owner occupancy and whether the house was a nuisance,” Karlstrom said.

Baer Tierkel of Precinct 4 said restricting property rights and slowing the growth of the rental market are ways of discriminating against renters. He opposed both articles that would require special permit applications.

“I personally value multi-generation, people who are young, people who are old, who can’t afford to buy houses in our neighborhoods,” Tierkel said.

Niels la Cour of Precinct 1 said the fundamental problem facing the town is that it has not kept up with the demand for housing stock because Town Meeting has refused to allow denser development in village centers.

James Perot of Precinct 1 disputed la Cour’s assertion, saying that the housing problem is caused by the university’s inability to provide enough campus beds.

Lisa Kleinholz of Precinct 6 argued Town Meeting should have supported the special permit requirement for single-family rentals because police responses to these homes are costly to taxpayers.

Also during the second fall session of Town Meeting, members clarified, by voice vote, the definition for lodging and boarding houses, in which between six and 10 people could rent rooms at such properties. “This definition really envisions an old-fashioned boarding house with an adult in charge,” said Planning Board Chairman David Webber.

No kitchens would be allowed in the rooms and an owner or resident manager must be present on the premises.

The town’s legislative body also created definitions for terms including “dwelling unit,” “principal residence” and “resident manager,” and revised the definitions for “family” to recognize civil unions and legal guardianship.

Webber said resident managers are a cornerstone of some of the zoning changes being proposed. “This is designed to make sure someone is minding the store,” he said.

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