Are short-term rentals a property right? No.

Let’s talk about property rights as it relates to rentals on Nantucket. I’ve heard a few people say that regulating and limiting short-term rentals on the island infringes upon their property rights. And for them, it likely feels that way. But the truth is something different. As voters, we all need to grasp the fact that property rights are not unlimited and they are not stagnant. 

For example, by right, as of 2022, one can have a secondary and tertiary dwelling on certain properties. 20 years ago this was not true. And in another ten years, who knows? Property rights change according to what the community needs and wants. We don’t allow gas stations in every zoning district. And we don’t allow anyone to build a five-story apartment building on their property. The community sets a limit on what it wants. 

So when it comes to the rules surrounding renting one’s home, long term or short, we have what is allowed now and what we are looking at this Spring is whether we ought to change those rules. When people talk about rights, they are obfuscating the issue somewhat. They are using a highly charged phrase — my rights — because as American citizens, we are hard-wired to protect an individual’s rights. But let’s be clear. Short-term rentals are not a right, like free speech or the right to an attorney. In fact, right now, if one takes a purely legal view of the situation, no one actually has the right to conduct commercial activity in a zone that does not allow commercial activity in Massachusetts (this is a case that was ruled in 2021 in Massachusetts by the Supreme Judicial Court. And it applies directly to Nantucket. Check it out.) 

In other words, short-term rentals as a business have been ruled to not be a property right. Legally speaking. There is no grey area here.

What we will decide at town meeting is whether we, as a community, want to alter our zoning code and make it a right and, certainly, a number of people want it to be codified as such. Anyone who owns properties and wishes to benefit from short-term rents will likely lobby very hard for this. Others who value other things about Nantucket will likely lobby against it. 

As voters, it’s critically important that we listen to what others are saying about this issue and the words they are using. Property rights are not god-given. They are bestowed and restricted by the community. 

5 Comments

  1. A lot can be said about tradition and living on Nantucket I have found there to be many traditions. Besides everyday community events members of our community always have had certain traditions that no longer exist. I could go into detail but I don’t want to get sad by all that are gone. One tradition that I know that has existed as long as I can remember is renting cottages. My fathers family who came here when he was a child rented cottages. When he was a college student coming to Nantucket for the summer, that all chipped in for a cottage that was on a family friend property. Then when he had a family he bought a house on Orange Street and for the weeks we siding reside, he rented it out. As a teenager myself, I rented a room and later a cottage while I worked and lived here in the summer.
    The tradition has continued for many many years, some people are fair doing it and some not. The fact that we have now have corporations, LLC’s, on island owners and part time residents who’s see this as a cash cow have changed the tradition. Now, our community wants to regulate it and I am not sure how I feel about it. I am willing to hear all sides but I don’t think enough has been proven to me that we can regulate it without it being harmful to many in our community who depend on that income. Figure out a way to keep out “cash cow gobblers” and I’ll listen. So keep the information flowing. (Sorry for any bad grammar or typos, I was in a hurry)

  2. I depend on short term rentals for my middle class home equity.

    • A lot of folks do, Henry. That’s what makes this issue so difficult to deal with. You can’t end STRs without unraveling a lot of people’s lives here. Do you have any ideas?

  3. I used to rent a family house to a HVAC company from off island . It was a LTR ” long term rental” . 2 out of 7 neighbors complained to zoning about the vans parked in the yard and related “traffic”. Zoned residential but my family and others used the property for construction business since 1963 “prior to any zoning” . I thought I was “grandfathered”. The remaining 5 neighbors spoke on my behalf at the zoning “hearing” , stating they had never been disturbed by activity on my property. The zoning board voted I was in violation and ordered the business removed. I could have gone to land court but the lawyer said my chances of overturning the ruling were 50/50 and he wanted a $75,000 retainer. Now I rent to summer work force , reducing income. Since then my neighborhood has become predominantly STR’s. The disrespect , noise , traffic , roadside parking , daily required “services” and maintenance, pools pumped out into streets , excessive lighting , car alarms sounding daily , and even complaints to me for not updating my home and renting short term. My family and business has been discriminated against . The current lack of rules for STR’s is hypocrisy. It seems those who favor the current situation refuse to acknowledge any negative impacts . I would like to rent my shop to an auto repair mechanic to help make ends meet , they won’t make any more noise than a group of kids in a pool , I promise. Nantucket has been exploited, forsaken by money and greed . My desire is to assist local business and house year round residents in a property designed and built to do so. My rights were taken , a portion of my income was taken . The 2 people who complained have since left the island. What a shitty feeling to say the least. The zoning board never visited the property, they simply believed the complainers hyperbole. Follow the money

  4. We have long been in the “eating the seed corn” part of the economic cycle. In terms of long term economics, more and more of the money making aspects of island living have been off shored. Phone company, electric company, banks, realtors. The short term rentals are one more stpe down that path; it isn’t so much the people renting out their basements for the weekend, it is the companies (Copley?) buying houses out here and then using them as rental properties. If you don’t own it, it’s not yours. Most of the island is no longer ours.

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