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Local governments seeking to curb short-term rentals by private homeowners received a win this week in the case of Styller v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Lynnfield, SJC-12901. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held the Plaintiff’s occasional, short-term rental of his private single-family home was not a permitted use under the zoning bylaws because the short-term, transient nature of the rentals did not meet the zoning purpose for single-resident zoning districts.
The Plaintiff owned a five-bedroom single-family home on three acres of land in Lynnfield (the “Town”). Plaintiff’s family lived in the home, but beginning in July 2015, would occasionally rent it out to guests for two to five days. Renters used the home for family and college reunions, business retreats and photoshoots. In May 2016, an individual who rented the home hosted a large party during which a shooting occurred that left one person dead.
After this incident, the Town building inspector ordered the Plaintiff to cease and desist offering the property for short-term rentals because doing so was considered an impermissible hotel use, or in the alternative, a lodging or rooming house use, which were permissible only with prior approval of the Town. The Plaintiff appealed the order to the Town’s board. While the appeal was pending, the Town amended its bylaws to explicitly prohibit short-term rentals, defined as periods of thirty-days or less, in single-resident zoning districts, unless specifically authorized by the Board of Appeals. The Board relied on the amended bylaw and upheld the order based on the prohibition of short-term rentals of thirty days or less without prior authorization.
The Plaintiff appealed to the Land Court, which after a jury-waived trial held the Plaintiff’s short-term rental of the property constituted an unauthorized additional use because it was equivalent to using the residence as a “tourist home” or “lodging house” under the bylaw existing at the time of the use, not the amended bylaw. Because Plaintiff did not have prior authority to operate a tourist home or lodging house, the Land Court held the short-term rental use violated the bylaw.
The Supreme Judicial Court transferred the case on its own initiative from the Appeals Court and affirmed the Land Court’s ruling but on different grounds. The Plaintiff argued on appeal that 1) the use of his property for occasional short-term rentals was not an unauthorized “additional use” but rather was a permissible principal use as a one family detached house and 2) prior to the amended bylaw, there was no prohibition against renting out single-family homes. The Town countered, just because the prior bylaw did not explicitly prohibit renting of a single-family home, that did not make short-term rentals automatically permissible.
The Supreme Judicial Court held,contrary to the Land Court’s holding, the use of the home as a short-term rental was neither a tourist home or lodging house because, among other things, the renters were given exclusive use of the entire house, without the owner or a manager remaining on the premises once renters arrived. The Court also held short-term rental uses were not, as the Land Court held, “unauthorized additional uses.”
Rather, the Supreme Judicial Court held short-term rental use of a single family home was inconsistent with single-resident zoning purposes – preserving the residential character of the neighborhood and developing a sense of community and a shared commitment to the common good of that community. While long-term rentals would serve these zoning purposes, short-term rentals do not. The Court then relied on the bylaw’s definition of “residence” and “family” to conclude the Town had “clearly and unambiguously” excluded purely transient uses of propriety in residential zoning districts. Accordingly, the Court concluded the Plaintiff’s use of the property for short-term rentals was “not a permissible use under the town’s bylaws, as it existed prior to its amendment in 2016.”
Interestingly, the Supreme Judicial Court did not directly answer the question of whether the Board properly affirmed the building inspector’s order based on the bylaw as amended after Plaintiff had originally appealed. Massachusetts General Laws c. 40A, § 6 generally protects property uses that were lawfully in existence prior to newly adoptive restrictive zoning regulations. By holding the short-term rental use was not a permissive use to begin with, however, the Court avoided having to decide the harder question of whether the Board’s reliance on the amended bylaw was permitted under c. 40A.
The Styller decision reflects a general trend in states, cities and towns towards restricting or banning transient and short-term rentals of privately-owned property. On the local level, cities and towns have many ways they can restrict their residents from offering short-term rentals, especially in single-family residential zoning districts. The Court cautioned that a different result could be obtained depending on the city or town’s bylaws, the types of permitted “additional” uses, and the customary “accessory” uses in a particular community.