Letter to the editor: Cornwall Airbnb regulations needed for the greater good

I killed (humanely) a goldfinch today having recently learned that birds with viral eye infections remain carriers for life even if they are treated back to health. As a veterinarian I learned the concept of “herd (or flock) health,” which can be paraphrased as “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” (Trekkies will no doubt recognize the quote.) Sometimes you euthanize some animals to save the herd or species, or even just to find out what they are suffering from. You take a few lives now to protect the future of the many. I’ll return to this concept later.
The Cornwall Planning Commission recently made public its recommendations for regulating short-term rental activities, in common parlance “Airbnb” housing (i.e.: booked on-line). Why did they (I served on the Cornwall Planning Commission during the drafting of the proposed Land Use and Development Regulations that include the Short-Term Rental requirements, but I don’t serve on the commission now) take this step in such a small town and incur the ire of a number of prominent citizens?
As recently noted in this publication, housing affordability is a real concern in Addison County with more affluent retirees finding the Middlebury area an attractive place to settle down. In Cornwall we also have a number of second homes — often owned by Middlebury alumni or parents — that impact real estate value here. I once heard an Addison County mother say “Cornwall is out of bounds” for her house-hunting daughter given the high real estate prices.
So what about Airbnbs? Isn’t this phenomenon a great way for local residents to “cash in” on the periodic short-term rental needs due to events like Middlebury College graduations? Even I have my eye on 2024 as a money making opportunity for us to rent rooms to solar eclipse chasers!
The Cornwall Planning Commission fully supports short-term rentals by residents as it is a great way for them to supplement their income. These dwellings are still serving the town by housing individuals/families as their primary function. The rub, and the impact on affordability, comes when we consider the burgeoning number of dwellings becoming dedicated completely or for the majority of the year to short term rental businesses. Again, why should we care? Especially when I can see how these houses, quite often, are being upgraded and maintained far better than neighboring properties with full-time residents.
One reason is that this can be yet another driver of home values in Cornwall and impact the availability of long-term rental properties or permanent residences. If I can purchase a house and use it for high-dollar, short-term rentals to wealthy visitors, that property is simply worth much more than it is as a home for a family or to lease it out long-term. This is a boon to current owners who can hope to make a better profit when they decide to downsize or move away. But we need to be aware of the other consequences.
I’ve heard Cornwall referred to as a “bedroom community” of Middlebury. Are we on the path to become the “Airbnb community” for Middlebury? There is already one house on my street that is empty the majority of the time — with various out-of-state license plates in the driveway the rest of the time. Of the 10 Cornwall homes on my street, how would I feel if another 2 or 3 became similarly used? What if I end up in a decade or two with no neighbors at all? This is not why I moved to Cornwall and urge everyone to pause and consider a similar future on their street.
OK, maybe that is a stretch. However, I recently heard that towns are having difficulty staffing volunteer firefighter positions. And our town has a number of open volunteer and elected positions. Apathy on the part of long-term residents? Or a dwindling pool of full-time residents upon which to rely? When does the percentage of full-time resident homes in a town get so low that there really isn’t a town at all? When will Cornwall need to merge with Middlebury?
The proposed regulations in Cornwall take the step to get a handle on this growing activity and recognize three separate categories of short-term rentals. It lays out basic requirements designed to protect neighbors and renters very similar to those the state and other towns have enacted. Owners renting out their home or rooms less than 14 days a year (above which Meals and Rooms Vermont State Tax payments are required) do not have to do anything but follow these basic requirements.
Dwellings that are otherwise occupied by a full-time resident but that are rented for more than 14 days a year simply need to get a permit (and, per Vermont law, register for a State Business Tax Account and a Meals and Rooms license). There is no limit proposed on the number of these Cornwall permits that can be issued. This can help the town and neighbors know that there may frequently be out-of-towners in these dwellings. It could help to prevent unnecessary worry or police calls.
For dwellings (or accessory buildings) that are solely used as Airbnb ventures — in essence full-time business operations — the proposal is to have a limit (20) on the number of permits issued for this commercial use.
I realize that there are both pros and cons for Cornwall and its residents from short-term rentals. Rarely do regulations please everyone. I hope my fellow residents (and those of the rest of Addison County as they grapple with this issue) take a look at all of the potential impacts of unchecked growth of this phenomenon. It may never come to the level I put forward above. However, we don’t even know how widespread it is now. And I do believe it already has impacted “affordability,” and availability of long-term rental housing, in our town.
But back to my “herd health” perspective (finally). The role of a municipal government is to consider the good of the majority — and take the long-term view of the health of the community — and sometimes do the tough thing. Enacting the proposed short-term rental regulations, I believe, will be good for our community. Maybe the “best” number of commercial short-term rental permits isn’t 20; but putting some limit on it may give us time to fully evaluate the potential impact of this trend. Once these businesses are established, it will be more difficult to take action for the good of other property owners and residents. The good of the few may need to be limited to protect the good of the many, and the future of the town of Cornwall.
Andrea Landsberg

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