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A R.I. town tried to crack down on RISD’s Airbnb. RISD went to court, and won

The episode highlights the difficulty towns and neighbors face as they try to navigate regulation of newfangled short-term rentals with old-fashioned residential zoning laws

19RIbarrington - The Rhode Island School of Design hosts an Airbnb on Freemont Avenue in Barrington, Rhode Island, which some neighbors have complained about. RISD recently succeeded in a legal fight against the town.Brian Amaral/Globe Staff

BARRINGTON, R.I. — For a place that some locals call Boring-ton, this was about as wild as the nightlife gets: A couple intoxicated people were running up and down a quiet residential street near the beach.

When Barrington police arrived at the short-term rental unit where all the ruckus seemed to be coming from, they looked through the window and saw a man hide a glass container behind a pillow. The police asked what was in it. He said it was weed. When pressed, he acknowledged with a sigh: It was cocaine.

This low-level drug arrest at a gathering of out-of-town visitors in August was one of a handful of times the town dealt with issues at the Freemont Avenue short-term rental unit since it came on the market in 2019.

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It might not be the last: The town of Barrington, in response to neighbor complaints, had tried to address the rental through its existing single-family zoning laws, by telling the host that it could not rent to more than one family or three unrelated people in a residential area. The host fought back in state court, and just last week a judge ruled that the town had arbitrarily applied its laws. Now, for the town, it’s back to the drawing board.

The host is not the horror story of an absentee, out-of-state investor who doesn’t have any ties to a town. It is the Rhode Island School of Design.

“We look forward to continuing to be a good citizen in the Town of Barrington and engaging in short-term rentals consistent with Rhode Island law,” RISD spokesperson Danielle Mancuso said in an email.

James Cunha, Barrington’s town manager, said in an email that the court’s decision was actually a “split decision”: Barrington will be able to come up with an ordinance that could pass muster, and state law doesn’t prevent them from imposing some sort of limits on short-term rentals. The Town Council will take that up for consideration, Cunha said.

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“We’ll work with RISD for a reasonable accommodation that will address the neighbors concerns,” Cunha said.

The episode highlights the difficulty towns and neighbors face as they try to navigate regulation of newfangled short-term rentals through platforms like Airbnb and Vrbo with old-fashioned residential zoning laws.

The situation is also notable because, although it doesn’t have direct bearing on the court case, there’s a very Rhode Island coincidence here: The Providence-based school acquired the property in December 2017, and started listing it on Airbnb in summer 2019 as a way to support a RISD alumni, Joe Gebbia, who’s an Airbnb co-founder, a university official told the town’s Zoning Board.

Airbnb said in a statement that it takes these sorts of issues seriously.

“Short-term rentals help support the entire Rhode Island’s economy, and we are focused on working with elected officials to ensure Airbnb can continue to help the state’s post-pandemic recovery and provide an important economic lifeline for our Hosts,” spokesperson Samuel Randall said in an email. “We are also committed to the safety and security of our community, which is why we have taken industry-leading steps like banning ‘party houses’ and parties, providing a Neighborhood Support Line and offering an online portal for law enforcement.”

To be sure, calling 15 Freemont Ave. a party house would be a bit of a stretch. Parking on a no-parking street was the main issue. The police did respond there a few times after concerns over the size of events — sometimes when the COVID-19 pandemic limited gatherings — and noise. The police generally found that the size of the event was below 15 people. In another instance, police said they heard music coming from the property, but it wasn’t really all that loud.

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“Parties advised to keep the music down,” an officer noted in a dispatch log.

If it’s true that real estate is all about location, location, location, it’s also true of short-term rentals. And it’s tough to find a better location, at least in Barrington, than 15 Freemont Ave.: It directly abuts Tillinghast Place, a 35-acre RISD-owned property along Narragansett Bay.

Until last year, RISD allowed the general public to park in its lot on Tillinghast Place to access what’s known locally as RISD Beach. The school, citing a “large increase in visitors” in recent years and the inability of students to get there for classes, cut off parking access to the general public. While people can still walk on to Tillinghast Place, parking is available only to staff, students, and faculty with a RISD ID card. There’s really nowhere else to park around there, as resident Ken Block has demonstrated.

But there’s another way to get on the property if you’re not in the RISD community: You can rent Tillinghast Place for an event. The adjacent Airbnb at 15 Freemont Ave. has become an ideal spot for wedding parties to rest their post-reception dance-weary feet, or for people getting work done on their houses who need a place to get away from the sawdust.

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Reviewers for the four-bedroom home, which has a stellar 4.94 rating and whose cost of about $1,000 a night can be split among up to 10 guests, rave about its bay views and personal touches.

Not everyone is so thrilled: Neighbors have raised issues with parking, event size and noise. (Only one complaint was technically entered into the record, but there’s evidence of more in police dispatch logs.)

To address complaints, the town’s zoning officials started investigating in October 2019. The town found that under the town’s residential zoning laws, events could not be held there. And if RISD wanted to offer the property for short-term rentals, they’d have list it as available only to one “household”: people related by blood or marriage, or no more than three unrelated people. That residential zoning law applies to households in single-family homes, and predates the emergence of the booming short-term rental phenomenon.

The town tried to use its existing “household” law to deal with a one particular short-term rental, defining the people renting it as a “household” because they are “living together” — in that they were alive, and were in one place.

It didn’t work: RISD (not Airbnb, which wasn’t a party to the litigation) went to court. On Nov. 12, Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl reversed the town Zoning Board’s decision.

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McGuirl called the argument that people who were alive in the same place magically transformed into a household “nonsensical.”

Barrington could come up with an ordinance regulating short-term rentals, but it couldn’t do it through existing limits on “households,” McGuirl decided. Because of that, the town was acting arbitrarily, she said. She also found the town had acted arbitrarily by picking on this one property when, as of April 2020, at least 16 other properties in Barrington were listed on Airbnb and Vrbo. (“A great place to throw a REALLY big party!” one person commented on a 14-bedroom Barrington mansion listed on Airbnb.) And she said the blanket prohibition on “events” there had no rational basis.

Barrington did win in one respect: McGuirl’s decision gives the town leeway to write its own regulations that could be acceptable, and wouldn’t necessarily conflict with state law. Four towns and cities in Rhode Island — Portsmouth, Middletown, Newport and Providence — had addressed short-term rentals in their zoning ordinances. Barrington could do that, and even impose limits on the number of people there. But it couldn’t try to shoehorn a pre-existing ordinance into a relatively novel situation.

More and more towns, according to people who worry about the proliferation of short-term rentals, will have to confront this issue. Short-term rentals have risen in popularity, both as a place to visitors stay and a place for homeowners to earn some extra cash. Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed legislation to create a statewide short-term rental registry. Governor Dan McKee vetoed it. Proponents say situations like the one in Barrington show why some action is necessary.

“Short-term rentals are kind of exploiting gaps in regulations,” said Senator Dawn Euer, a Democrat representing Jamestown and Newport. “That’s something I’ve seen a lot.”


Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him @bamaral44.