2012-03-15 / Front Page

Planning board mulls policy for bed-and-breakfasts

Planning board talks about relaxing restrictions on B&Bs outside of village
BY MARGO SULLIVAN

The bed-and-breakfast has been slowly disappearing on the island, and that’s a problem, Commissioner Michael Smith said at the March 7 meeting of the Planning Commission.

Jamestown is “down to two” bed-and-breakfast establishments, he said. He suggested the commissioners consider encouraging more of them – primarily in the village district – because new bed-and-breakfasts would ease the shortage of short-term housing on the island and help struggling property owners stay in their homes.

“We’re not meeting the housing needs in Jamestown,” said Smith. “Short-term housing is part of our need and it’s getting worse instead of better.”

During a brief exchange, Smith and other commissioners hinted they might favor relaxing the bed-and-breakfast restriction. The change would enable homeowners outside the downtown commercial district to start new bed-andbreakfasts.

Planning Chairman Michael Swistak said the bed-and-breakfast topic also might become part of a broader discussion about a surge in short-term rentals happening “under the radar.”

“That whole issue is about to surface,” he said.

Jamestown had a bed-andbreakfast debate roughly a decade ago, Town Planner Lisa Bryer said, over a proposal to expand guesthouses into the downtown residential zones.

Ultimately, the community restricted the bed-and-breakfast to the downtown commercial district, but the issue could resurface. Bryer did not remember the specifi cs of the old debate, but Swistak said at the time a number of residents did not want to see the commercial district expanded and opposed encouraging people to visit the island.

Smith’s comments came up in the middle of a discussion on affordable housing, as the commissioners reviewed more updates to the Jamestown Comprehensive Community Plan. The Planning Commission has spent much of the past year on revising the plan per state law, which charges cities and towns with updating their comprehensive plans every 10 years.

“Can we bring the bed-andbreakfast into the affordable housing mix?” Smith asked. He went on to say the room rentals could provide income for struggling property owners. The income would help people afford to stay in their homes. In that sense, the bedand breakfasts would increase Jamestown’s affordable housing stock, he said.

Directing a question at Bryer, Smith asked, “Are our bed-andbreakfast regulations too onerous?”

Except for the location, she said, there are no regulations.

But the overall issue is complicated, she said, because a bed-and-breakfast is considered a home-based business. If town officials were to relax the rules for bed-and-breakfast operators, people in other home-based businesses would probably say they should be free to pursue their business interests too.

Also, new bed-and-breakfast units would not count in the offi- cial tally of the town’s affordable housing stock because the guest rooms are only temporary units, Bryer said.

Jamestown must increase its affordable housing inventory, she said, to meet state guidelines. The target number is now 191 new units by approximately 2040, when planners anticipate the island will be totally developed.

By state law, 10 percent of every municipality’s permanent housing stock is supposed to be affordable. If not, the local government must make a plan and show they are making progress to achieve that 10 percent goal.

Earlier, Swistak had asked Bryer if the state might withhold funding for schools, for example, when the town fails to meet its affordable housing goals.

No, Bryer said, but Jamestown could face a risk from a developer who might come into town and propose a large apartment complex with 25 percent of the units earmarked for affordable housing. Town officials could object to the density, but they might lose the appeal if the state decided Jamestown hadn’t tried “hard enough” to meet affordable housing goals. “It’s a threat,” Bryer said.

Jamestown does have a plan but has fallen behind schedule in meeting the 10 percent goal due to the high cost of land on the island. The community is seven years into its development plan and should have provided about 35 affordable housing units by now. But in reality, Jamestown has added only eight units, due to problems that scuttled several projects the town expected to have underway.

Meanwhile, the Affordable Housing Committee and other local officials are studying a variety of ways to deal with the high cost of housing in Jamestown, Bryer said, and are going beyond the single issue of the state requirement.

At their recent meeting, several planning commissioners said they may want to rekindle the bed-andbreakfast debate and take a fresh look at the options.

“It’s an issue worth talking about,” Commissioner Duncan Pendlebury said.

Pendlebury said the Chamber of Commerce is in favor of more bed-and-breakfasts to encourage more weekend visitors in town and to improve business.

Pendlebury also said he doesn’t believe the planning commissioners have aired the bed-and-breakfast issue enough. But he added he would prefer to separate the bedand breakfast debate from the affordable housing discussion.

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