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Land Court Says Hull Zoning Bylaw Doesn’t Allow Weekly Rentals

In an interesting decision that could have ramifications for the short-term rental of property, the Land Court in Lytle v. Swiec, (Mass. Land Ct. May 23, 2017), held that the Hull Zoning Board was correct in upholding the decision of the Building Commissioner that the weekly rental of a single-family home violated the Hull zoning by law.

The plaintiff, a property owner in Hull, owns a parcel which has two legally-existing single-family dwelling units.  The plaintiff resides in one and rents the other, with a minimum rental period of one week.  The Building Commissioner determined that the homeowner was using his property “for transient rental purposes/uses and/or business/commercial use” in violation of the zoning bylaw.  The bylaw, like many, states that any use which is not explicitly allowed under the bylaw is prohibited.  While the bylaw allows certain accessory uses in single-family dwellings, the bylaw does not set any minimum rental period for such homes.  Despite having used the property in such a manner for a number of years, at some point complaints were filed with the Town, and the Building Commissioner issued the notice to cease and desist after determining that the weekly rentals violated the zoning bylaw.  The property owner appealed, and the Board upheld the Commissioner’s determination.  The property owner further appealed to the Land Court.

Both sides moved for summary judgment.  The Court found that the Board had erred in looking beyond the language of the bylaw to the Building Code in attempting to define the property owner’s use of the property as “transient” “use.”

However, the Court ultimately upheld the Board’s decision.  The Court found that, as there was no provision in the zoning bylaw permitting weekly rentals of single-family dwellings, and because the rental was not an accessory use of the property but was rather a commercial or business use, the Board was correct in upholding the Commissioner’s determination.  The Board fell back on the reasoning that any use not explicitly permitted in the bylaw is prohibited – “while the Board stopped short of explicitly defining or categorizing Plaintiff’s use, it determined that Plaintiff’s weekly seasonal rentals are prohibited because such use is not specifically allowed, is inconsistent with single-family use, and is not otherwise allowed as an accessory use.”  The Court concluded that this was a reasonable determination, but limited its holding to the specific facts of this case and the specific findings of the Board, and “decline[d] to set any minimum rental period” as beyond the scope of summary judgment motion, while noting that “the court did not agree with the Board’s analysis that the Bylaw inferentially mandates a minimum rental period of thirty days by incorporating the definition of the word ‘transient’ from the Building Code.”

Although the plaintiff in this case marketed his property through VRBO, this case has serious implications for other home-rental businesses, such as Airbnb and HomeAway, and indeed any private homeowner who wishes to rent their home.  The Court acknowledged, and declined to wade into, the “still-heavily disputed allegations as to the custom and practice [of renting homes] throughout Hull raised as an issue,” because the “issues remaining in this case are indicative of the tensions in Hull and other municipalities between property owners utilizing shared hotel and accommodation applications.”  This case is a win for those who wish to limit short-term rentals in residential areas.  However, the reality is that many homeowners, in Hull and other municipalities in Massachusetts, rent their properties through sites like Airbnb and VRBO, and few local zoning bylaws have been amended to anticipate and regulate such use.  The ongoing tension between competing concerns is unlikely to go away any time soon, so there likely will be additional cases raising arguments like those raised by Hull in this case.  It remains to be seen the outcome of those, as each municipalities’ bylaw will need to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.