West Haven short-term rental dispute raises enforcement questions

WEST HAVEN – A number of Baldwin Street homeowners say they bought property so they could have waterfront views in a residential area, even though parking in a narrow, dead-end street presents challenges and homes are close enough together to hear a particularly loud sneeze from the neighbor.

As a result, residents didn’t appreciate seeing one of the homes closest to the water listed on the Airbnb website as a “perfect waterfront getaway” that’s “ideal for small get-togethers.” family, a reunion of friends or a girls retreat or weddings.”

After city officials learned that owners Jeff and Kim Ambroise listed the home they bought in January for $820,000 on the short-term rental website, they were asked to appear before the Zoning Board of Appeals to obtain a special use exception for short-term rentals. rentals.

“This is our retirement home, the home that we want to pass on to our children,” Jeff Ambroise told council members at the Aug. 17 meeting. He said the couple, whose main residence is in West Hartford, had spent six months renovating the house and were looking to earn additional income to pay off the costs of those renovations by renting it out.

In 2019, the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission passed new regulations regarding short-term rentals. According to these regulations, properties cannot be rented for a period of less than seven days and no more than four unrelated temporary tenants can occupy the space at a time.

Neighbors disputed the Ambroses’ claims that they followed regulations and hadn’t hosted any tenants yet, presenting evidence from Airbnb that the house was listed as a rental for days at a time. Many testified before the ZBA about a party over Father’s Day weekend in which large numbers of people – many of them wearing clothing associated with a biker association, much to the dismay of some neighbors – got drunk beers all night and parked many vehicles along the narrow street. .

“It’s not a party neighborhood and it’s not a party house,” neighbor Brian D’Ostilio told the council.

Jeff Ambroise did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Neighbor Jay Prokop said if he had known the street could accommodate a house for short-term rental, he would not have bought his house two years ago.

“We saved up and couldn’t believe we could get a spot on the water,” he said. “It’s a quiet street, everyone knows each other by their first name. Now we have people cycling to and fro, but they have no respect. They come for a few days and leave.

Even with city bylaws, neighbors on Baldwin Street said they were frustrated with what they believe was a lack of enforcement.

Neighbor Nancy Cassella said what she took away from the ZBA meeting was that it was the responsibility of residents to file complaints with city police and zoning office officials to inform them of violations of the local regulations.

“They admitted they didn’t have the bandwidth to enforce the rules,” she said. “We are trying to figure out what the next step is. At this point, we don’t want it here, and we certainly don’t want anyone else selling to someone who turns a house into an Airbnb or turns their house into an Airbnb. Baldwin is too small to accommodate someone who is not part of this neighborhood.

Neighbor Marilyn Wilkes said she and her neighbors felt maintaining their quality of life had become an added responsibility.

“People are working, and now it’s the weekend and you want to relax in your own home and you have complaints of noise, litter and nuisance which you now have to take to the police and planning and the zoning,” she said. “I don’t want to spend my time looking for the best way to proceed. I don’t want to have to call the police or deal with P&Z. I want to enjoy my house in peace.

At the August 17 ZBA hearing, city officials said the hearing would have to be redone. Several council members said during their visit to the property that a mandatory sign notifying neighbors of the public hearing was not properly posted. Officials told the Ambroses they shouldn’t house any more tenants until the next hearing – and if they received the special use permit at the next hearing, they would have to wait two weeks for neighbors to do so. call.

That weekend, neighbors called police about two out-of-state tenant cases. According to police documents obtained by the Registry, police responded to calls from neighbors on August 19, where they found a “little bachelor party.” The tenant who spoke to police, a New York state resident, said she paid $2,000 to rent the house for the weekend; the police took no action against the tenant.

Two days later, police responded to a call alerting them to another group of tenants. Police said they spoke with a New Jersey man on Aug. 21 who said he was renting the home with his family for three days for $700 per night. The police took no action against the tenant.

“It rests with the Planning and Zoning Commission,” Cassella said.

Kathleen Hendricks, chair of the Planning and Zoning Commission, said any amendments or changes would be submitted to the commission as an application.

“Anyone can bring us an application and suggest a change,” she said.

Chris Soto, the city’s planning director, said he doesn’t think Airbnb created the problems with short-term rentals, but it’s likely the website brought the concerns to the fore.

“Bed and breakfasts can be popular around the coastline,” he said.

Dave Killeen, the city’s former deputy planner, said he thought at the time the new bylaws were a “good consideration” but new conditions or needs may arise.

“They’ve come up with a settlement that I think was complete at the time, but it wouldn’t hurt them to go back and revisit it in light of what they’re going through,” he said. declared.

Killeen said one of the inherent challenges of writing city-wide regulations is that not all neighborhoods in the city are created equal.

“West Haven is so built up. It is urbanized and has one of the highest population densities in the state,” he said. “The challenge for the planning and zoning commission was that they had to adopt a bylaw that was generic enough to be able to accommodate, because not all urban streets in West Haven are the same.”

Namely, he said, there is a parking problem in some areas of the city, where street parking is the only option available to some residents.

Neighbor Heidi Loiseau has said on several occasions — none related to Airbnb — that she and her neighbors saw their vehicles rammed into Baldwin Street. Even though the Airbnb hasn’t caused damage to the vehicles yet, she fears it’s just a matter of time. She said Airbnb was not responsive to neighbors complaining if they weren’t hosting or renting.

“It’s hard to complain to Airbnb, they seem to discriminate against neighbors,” she said. “If you make a phone call to Airbnb, they expect you to have a number on file and you wait and wait and wait for someone to answer the phone.”

Mayor Nancy Rossi said she believes the problem is not the city’s, but rather the property owners‘.

“The rules are the rules and they have to be obeyed,” she said. “If you run a stop sign and get hit, whose fault is it? »

Rossi said she thinks if there are ways the city can improve enforcement by changing regulations, she would agree.

“If anyone can point to a settlement as bad or flawed, I’m okay with that now,” she said.

Some residents believe the problem goes beyond a single tenant and reflects a lack of city-wide planning and coordination.

“I think the Airbnb situation in the city is another example of the city reacting to things piecemeal instead of having an overall hospitality or tourism plan in place,” Wilkes said.

Prokop said that for Airbnb hosts, housing is a business.

“This is just not the place for that. It’s a business for them and it’s not a place for a business,” he said.

Ginny Kozlowski, executive director of the Connecticut Lodging Association, said that before the rise of websites like Airbnb, it “was not uncommon” for real estate agencies in coastal communities to do short-term rentals. In a city like West Haven, which has a number of students renting during the academic year who attend the University of New Haven, Kozlowski said landlords might be looking to maximize their income during the summer months when those rental properties are vacant.

“The challenge in our market is that we don’t see ourselves as a tourist destination like Miami Beach, but we’ve seen this rise, especially post-pandemic, where people have wanted to be within driving distance,” he said. she declared. “There are challenges with flights, so people have learned to go to these sites to book their accommodation.”

Kozlowski said she thinks it would have a negative impact to separate short-term rentals from websites like Airbnb, which aim to make short-term rentals sustainable as a business model.

Although neighbors on Baldwin Street say they have no recourse for their concerns because they believe the regulations are neither enforced nor strict enough, at least one former short-term rental owner said the regulations short-term rentals had driven her out of town.

Months before the regulations changed in 2019, Juliet Novak said she made updates to her home in order to rent it out to earn extra income.

“We were slipping by the skin of our teeth” financially, Novak said in 2019, and his listing had been a hit with short-term renters. That changed with the regulations, she said.

This week, Novak said she finally made the choice to leave West Haven for Vermont.

“I still don’t have Airbnb, but it’s cheaper to live here, so I don’t have to,” she said in an email.

In May 2021, concerned Ocean Avenue residents raised concerns about a neighbor listing a home on Airbnb to the ZBA. Although the special use exception was opposed by about a dozen neighbors, zoning officials said they had not received any complaints since the ZBA gave its approval because the landlord complied with the conditions set out by the board.

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