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.