This article is directed to the adults around here, people who didn’t just fall off the turnip truck.
The issue is simple: Will the County Council protect the County’s neighborhoods and residential communities, as rightly expected by local citizens who actually live here full time, whose lives (and not just money) are invested in this special place, who pay local income taxes, and who vote here? Or will Council Members vote against local citizens and facilitate a new boom in “Airbnb” type rentals, feeding the financial interests of non-resident outside investors and a relative handful of (powerful) people who are positioned to benefit financially, notwithstanding the woe it brings to others?
That adage “FOLLOW THE MONEY” is the key yet again.
The County Council is being pressed to relax Short Term Vacation Rental (STR) regulations enacted just last year, when what’s really needed is to strengthen them. This issue is critically important to the future of our community in the long run, but today the only people who seem to be aware of the battle are (1) neighbors of existing STR properties and (2) the relative handful of people—maybe one- or two-hundred of 37,000 Talbot Countians—who stand to make the real, serious money from these arrangements.
Full disclosure: I personally have no dog in this fight. No STR property is yet (!) in my neighborhood, nor do I have any financial interests affected for better or worse by STRs. Indeed, I was hardly aware of the issue until last year’s election…but I’ve been following it pretty closely once I saw the impact an imminent boom in Airbnbs will bring to Talbot County. I am now an advocate for thoughtful regulation—not elimination–of STRs so we can have them but avoid harm to the folks who actually live here, brought about by exploitation of Talbot’s unique merits by outside investors and those who would milk that cow.
This brief commentary cannot delve into the many aspects of STR regulation. But I do want to stress one overarching idea to keep in mind as you read about STRs: FOLLOW THE MONEY.
The Council is being lobbied from two directions. On the one side is an informal group of full-time local residents who have been neighbors of STR properties for years. This amorphous group, with no resources, came together under the banner “Neighborhoods Are For Neighbors” when the zoning code was rewritten last year. They were less than happy with the regulations enacted at that time—the ones that might now be relaxed. (That displeasure in fact led to their participation in the successful effort to oust the Council President.)
On the other side is the newly created Talbot Vacation Advocates (“TVA”), described in their own introductory memo as “a group of concerned Short Term Rental (STR) homeowners, vacation rental companies, tourism businesses, and local professional groups.” While some current STR owners are on the list of members (more on that below), the named organizers—no surprise here—are four (4) vacation rental companies and the Mid-Shore Board of Realtors. Do you doubt TVA has access to resources to lobby this legislation?
These are the businesses that—along with the (almost invariably) out-of-County investors who buy properties for STR or Airbnb use—are the ones making significant money on these internet-enabled ventures. (The largest vaction rental firm behind TVA was recently acquired; it is now a subsidiary of a regional firm that simultaneously markets Airbnb type rentals in Ocean City, the Delaware Beaches, and North Myrtle Beach SC.)
To state the obvious, there is nothing whatever wrong with investing and with making money—I’ve done it myself, in real estate. An investors’ point of view is not somehow illegitimate. What is important is that everyone has their eyes open, and recognizes when self-interest lies behind arguments being advanced to influence public policy.
TVA states that its “aim [is] to partner with and assist the Talbot County Council in revisiting (and, where appropriate reasonably revising) STR regulations.” For me, “partner and assist” is particularly worrisome language given the financial and organizational support the real estate community advanced to some members of the Council in 2018—in fact, today’s majority on the Council.
That some current STR licensees have joined TVA is illogical, but understandable when one reads the scary–but untrue–promotional material TVA’s organizers have put out. It is illogical because the people who already have STR licenses and play by the rules are already in the catbird seat. A sudden boom of new STR properties will mean only more competition, pressure on prices and occupancy. But given TVA’s bald assertion—that “a large group will continue to argue to ban all STRs in Talbot County”—of course all 140 current licensees should rise up.
Having followed this closely for 15 months, read all comments submitted to the STRB, and attended most of their hearings over the summer, I can assure you that no one is advocating a “ban all STRs in Talbot County.” If owners adhere to the law and take reasonable efforts to assure their renters do too, then there is no risk of losing an existing license. (But understand, very few of the STR owners are local residents, and so must go on what they’re told by their rental agents…so, join TVA and send emails to the Council!)
TVA has organized a veritable onslaught of emails to the County Council in recent days pressing for relaxation of STR regulations, and they will have a very big turnout at a public work session at the Community Center’s Wye Room at 5PM on Wednesday night, December 18th. It’s an important moment for those who care about the character of Talbot County.
As you try to follow the merits of the STR debate, just remember: FOLLOW THE MONEY.
More to come….
Dan Watson is the former chair of Bipartisan Coalition For New Council Leadership and has lived in Talbot County for the last twenty-five years.
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