Island Short-Term Rental Dispute Lands In Court

The Grapes' property on West Dover Street.

Another dispute over short-term rentals on Nantucket is headed to court. 

Silver Street resident Cathy Ward is suing the Nantucket Zoning Board of Appeals and her neighbors, Peter and Linda Grape, in Massachusetts Land Court, claiming that their short-term rental in a residential zoning district is illegal. 

Ward’s legal effort is being supported by the non-profit political action group ACK Now, which sponsored a controversial proposal to regulate and restrict short-term rentals that was defeated by island voters at last year’s Town Meeting. Ward is a member of ACK Now’s new advisory committee created last fall. 

The Grapes’ property on West Dover Street backs up to Ward’s home on Silver Street. In her lawsuit, Ward claimed she is often unable to enjoy her property due to “frequent outdoor parties with groups of young men playing drinking games and blaring music so loudly that Ms. Ward cannot watch television or entertain guests in her home.” The lawsuit alleges on at least one occasion, a renter at the Grape’s home walked naked from the outdoor shower back into the residence. The guests have “little to no care or concern” for Ward and the proximity to her home, the lawsuit states. 

“Particularly during the peak season months, this is a never-ending cycle for Ward,” it says. 

The Grapes rent the West Dover Street home for up to $8,000 per week during the summer. 

Reached by phone on Thursday, Ward declined to comment. The Grapes did not return a voicemail left at their primary residence in Wellesley seeking comment. 

Last fall, Ward took her complaints to the island’s zoning enforcement officer, Marcus Silverstein, with an enforcement request that he determine the Grape’s property to be in violation of the town’s zoning bylaw – specifically that a commercial use is not allowed in a residential district. After the island’s building commissioner Paul Murphy ruled that there was no violation, Ward appealed his decision to the Zoning Board of Appeals. In November, the ZBA voted to uphold Murphy’s decision, determining that short-term rentals operating in residential districts do not represent a violation of Nantucket’s zoning bylaw. 

Several members of the Zoning Board of Appeals indicated they did not believe it was their role to “make policy” in the larger debate over short-term rentals by overturning Murphy’s denial of Ward’s zoning enforcement request. The ultimate decision on how the island should handle short-term rentals, they said, was better left to voters at Town Meeting. 

In Ward and ACK Now’s appeal to Land Court, they allege that the ZBA’s decision was arbitrary and capricious, and that it had improperly interpreted the town’s zoning bylaw. The lawsuit seeks to have the ZBA ruling annulled and a judgement that the short-term rental on West Dover Street is unlawful. 

A similar  case unfolded last year at 14 New Mill Street in another legal effort that was funded by ACK Now and made it all the way to Massachusetts Land Court where it was dismissed after The Copley Group sold the property.

As the ZBA suggested last fall, the short-term rental issue will be front and center when voters convene at Town Meeting in May. The Planning Board has endorsed a town-sponsored warrant article that would codify and legalize short-term rentals in all zoning districts, a proposal put forward, in part, to address and resolve the “neighbor versus neighbor” disputes like the one that is happening between Ward and the Grapes.  The board’s recommendation is contingent upon the passage of a companion warrant article that would regulate short-term rentals with requirements for local registration, permitting, inspection, and certain fees. It would also set up a structure to put some of the “nuisance” issues associated with short-term rentals – for example: noise and parking – in the purview of the Board of Health.

The Planning Board received more than 52 pages of e-mails about the short-term rental bylaw.

As it vowed in the aftermath of its defeat at Town Meeting last year, ACK Now is also back with its own new proposal to restrict short-term rentals. Article 43, a competing zoning bylaw amendment, was submitted via citizen petition by Tobias Glidden, the executive chairman of the ACK Now. Glidden’s proposal would allow short-term rentals by right as an accessory use for those whose primary residence is on Nantucket. For non-residents, a special permit would be required to use their property as a short-term rental as long as the Zoning Board of Appeals determined it was an accessory use. All other short-term rentals would be prohibited.

The lawsuits and competing Town Meeting proposals around short-term rentals come in the aftermath of a 2021 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) decision involving short term rentals known as the Lynnfield case, or the Styller case. The case reached the SJC after Alexander Styller, the owner of a home in Lynnfield, Mass., appealed a decision by the local building inspector that prohibited him from offering short term rentals of his home based on the fact it was located in a residential zoning district. After losing at the local Zoning Board and the Land Court, Styller appealed to the SJC, which also ruled to uphold the building commissioner’s decision. The decision stated: “short-term rental use of a one family home is inconsistent with the zoning purpose of the single-residence zoning district in which it is situated, i.e., to preserve the residential character of the neighborhood.” There is disagreement on how the case might translate to Nantucket, or if it applies at all, but it has spurred action on both sides of the debate.

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