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Hull fines fuel debate over short-term vacation rentals

Beachgoers in the Kenberma section of Hull, where short-term rentals are popular.

Tom Herde/Globe staff files 2000

Beachgoers in the Kenberma section of Hull, where short-term rentals are popular.

The town of Hull has ordered a Newton woman to stop weekly rentals of three houses she owns in the scenic Kenberma area of town, and fined her $1,000 and counting, in the latest instance of officials enforcing a rule against short-term vacation rentals.

The town officials say local zoning outlaws rentals of less than 30 days in residential neighborhoods, an interpretation being challenged in Land Court by two other homeowners who were ordered last year to stop renting their properties. A proposal to change the zoning bylaws to explicitly allow short-term rentals failed at the spring Town Meeting.

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The policy has polarized the small peninsula town, with some defending a decades-old tradition of homeowners using rentals to supplement their income and others saying the practice is creating problems with noise, traffic, and trash.

Meanwhile, the local Building Department is not actively enforcing the rule but “responding to complaints,” according to inspector Bartley Kelly.

“We could spend all summer chasing summer rentals, [but] if nobody complains, it’s not an issue, so far,” Kelly said. “If a neighbor complains, we’ll go down and investigate and go from there.”

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He said the complaint against Rochelle Greene of Newton came in June from a neighbor on Massasoit Avenue, where Greene in 2013 bought two houses, a block from the ocean. The neighbor, Nadine Henry, also had complained in July 2013 about a loud party with a male stripper at one of the houses.

“We feel that transient rentals will undermine the sense of neighborhood and community we have come to rely on in Hull,” Henry wrote in her 2013 letter to the Building Department. “A dangerous precedent is being set by this type of use of single-family homes, simply by the licentious, party-centered mindset of the tenants. Shall the Chamber of Commerce adopt the slogan ‘What happens in Hull stays in Hull?’ ”

After Henry complained again this summer, Kelly said, Greene was ordered on June 19 to “cease and desist” her weekly rentals of 16 and 18 Massasoit Ave., and was then fined $500 for each property for 10 days of violations in July.

“If she continues to rent in violation of the bylaw, she will be fined again,” at $50 a day per violation,” according to the town’s attorney, James Lampke.

Greene was cited again on July 29, for another home she owns at 75 Lynn Ave., a quiet street that runs between the bay and Nantasket Avenue. She was told to stop renting the property weekly and using it “strictly as a business/commercial venture,” building inspector Peter Lombardo said in the violation notice.

Neither Greene nor her attorney, Christine Lindsay of Quincy, could be reached for comment.

The impact of the controversy on the town is unclear.

Some say there are fewer tourists this summer, and that is hurting business. “The town just has a different feel to it — less busy,” said Ronnie Lees, owner of Northeast Surfing.

Other business owners see no effect, or blame cool weather for sluggish sales. “We’re heavily married to the weather, so the weather has a bigger determination on how we are doing,” said Daddy’s Beach Club owner Jeffrey Lemkin.

The Hull Nantasket Chamber of Commerce supports short-term rentals, on the assumption that “there is an economic benefit to the town and business owners when people come in and rent,” said chamber president Patricia Abbate. But she said it is unclear what impact the town’s policy is having, especially since the MBTA started weekend ferry service this summer, bringing more people into town.

“We’ll do an assessment in September when we can catch our breath, and when we can take [into consideration] all the factors,” she said.

It is also not clear whether publicity over the town’s policy on short-term rentals has affected their number.

The town inspects about 1,220 rental properties annually for health and safety, but does not ask about rental time, according to the public health director, Joyce Sullivan. “Unless they tell us, we don’t know,” she said.

The online site vrbo.com — Vacation Rentals By Owner — listed 43 Hull properties on Aug. 1, many of them for weekly terms. In August 2013, there were more than 450 listings in Hull.

Many Hull residents, however, rent their properties by word of mouth or other less formal methods.

“My personal guess is that [the publicity] has certainly stopped some, but there are certainly some who continue” because they need the income, said Ken Hackel, owner of Hull’s Carousels and Ships gift shops.

One person who used vrbo.com to advertise a two-bedroom house on Gunrock Beach — for $1,800 a week with minimum stays of seven nights — hung up when asked whether he worried about violating the town’s ban on short-term rentals. The listing remained on the site, though, as of Monday.

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com.
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