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April 15, 2024

West Hartford becomes a battleground in long-term struggle over short-term rentals

HBJ PHOTO | DAVID KRECHEVSKY This house at 146 Raymond Road in West Hartford is one of three the town wants owner Mark Chu to remove from Airbnb.

Mark Chu sees himself as a promoter of West Hartford.

In 2023, he paid about $1.5 million to purchase four houses — three single-family homes and one duplex — on Raymond Road, less than a 2-minute walk from Blue Back Square in the heart of West Hartford Center. He bought them to use as short-term rentals; one of the homes had been listed on Airbnb for several years by the previous owner.

“I’m an ambassador for the town,” Chu said, explaining that he provides renters with information about businesses and attractions in West Hartford. “You know, here’s the list of restaurants. Here’s a movie theater. Here’s the shopping. I’m pushing people right to where all these small businesses are.”

Renters appreciate the information, he said, adding, “People love that they’re able to walk out of my houses, take a right on the sidewalk and be at Blue Back Square in 90 seconds.”

Mark Chu says his short-term rental customers like being just a quick walk from Blue Back Square.

Unfortunately for Chu, town officials don’t see him as an ambassador. Instead, they view him as a scofflaw. The town has issued cease-and-desist orders for three of his properties, demanding he remove their listings from Airbnb.

Chu is protesting the orders, and will appear in front of the town Zoning Board of Appeals on April 17.

A growing market

Like many communities in Connecticut and nationwide, West Hartford is trying to rein in the growing number of residential properties listed on short-term rental apps and websites like Airbnb and Vrbo.

It has sparked battles among property owners — those who want to rent and those who object — and between renters and the municipal governments that are trying to regulate, and in some cases ban, the practice.

The issue has found its way to both the state Supreme Court and General Assembly, the latter of which is considering a bill to grant communities more power to regulate short-term rentals.

This is no small fight. According to AirDNA, an app and website that tracks short-term rentals, the market has grown, with 2.46 million active listings nationwide in 2023. As of early April, there were 73 active short-term rental listings in West Hartford, up 49% over the past year, AirDNA said.

There were more than 2.46 million short-term rental listings nationwide in 2023, according to AirDNA.

Chu, a Plainville native who has owned Farmington-based real estate development company Instant Property Solutions LLC for nearly 30 years, acquired the four West Hartford properties in early June last year. He then poured about $300,000 into rehabilitating them; two of the homes were unoccupied at the time.

Just over five months later, he received a “notice of potential violation” from Robert Gosselin, the town’s zoning enforcement officer, citing the listings for 136 and 150 Raymond Road on Airbnb.

The letters — dated Nov. 24, 2023, the day after Thanksgiving — stated that the town had received a complaint and verified that the homes were listed on Airbnb and “occupied by transient guests.” The letters added, “Please note, our ordinance does not allow for short-term rentals in residential zones.”

The letters stated that Chu had violated a list of permitted uses and asked him to “(p)lease remove your listing.” It also warned that a cease-and-desist order would follow if he did not comply.

He subsequently received a third, similar notice, dated Dec. 26, for his house at 146 Raymond Road. The town has not cited his other house, at 152 Raymond Road, even though it also is listed on Airbnb.

The three cease-and-desist orders were issued Jan. 17.

‘Zoning is permissive’

West Hartford officials declined to discuss the issue in detail while the appeal is pending.

Town Planner Todd Dumais, though, spoke briefly with Hartford Business Journal and unequivocally stated that “short-term rentals are not permitted.”

David Markowitz

Both Chu and his attorney, David J. Markowitz, a partner with Simsbury law firm Hassett & George P.C., begged to differ.

For starters, Markowitz says the town’s ordinances do not contain a definition for short-term rentals, nor do they specifically mention them.

“It’s not in the town zoning regulations,” he said.

Further, he argues that if something is not specifically prohibited, then it is allowed.

“That’s what the case says that was argued before the (state) Supreme Court,” Markowitz said. “That’s one of the rights of ownership.”

Home vs. residence

The case before the state’s highest court is Frances Wihbey v. Pine Orchard Association Zoning Board of Appeals in Branford.

Wihbey bought a single-family home in a development known as Pine Orchard Branford in 2005. He listed the property as a vacation rental through Vrbo.

Pine Orchard Association governs the development and issued a cease-and-desist order in 2019, stating the rental violated zoning regulations updated a year earlier. Wihbey appealed, first to the local appeals board and then to Superior Court, arguing regulations approved in 1994 allowed the rentals.

Pine Orchard Association and two neighboring homeowners who intervened in the case, however, argued that short-term rentals were never permitted, and that such use was not consistent with the property being a home or a residence.

The appellate court, however, ruled that “home” and “residence” mean different things, stating that a residence can be a place where someone resides temporarily, while home suggests something more permanent. The court also ruled that the 1994 regulations allowed short-term rentals.

The case was appealed to the state Supreme Court, which heard arguments from all sides on March 27. A decision is not expected for months.

Markowitz, though, said the court’s decision likely will set a precedent. Until then, Chu’s appeal will be heard by the West Hartford Zoning Board of Appeals, and if it is rejected, the plan is to take the case to court.

Chu said he believes the enforcement seems arbitrary, because he is aware of others who list West Hartford homes on Airbnb who have not received letters from the town.

A check of zoning agendas for the past three years on the town’s website found no other appeals of cease-and-desist orders for short-term rentals.

Pending legislation

Meantime, state lawmakers are also weighing in on the issue. A bill in the legislature would allow municipalities to create ordinances to license and regulate short-term rental properties, as well as to hire experts to help develop regulations to “properly manage these uses.”

A report prepared for legislators about the bill states that “increased traffic, noise, parking issues and other concerns” have prompted many municipalities “to consider efforts to regulate such rentals.”

It also cites safety concerns, as well as reduced affordable housing inventory and that rentals “drive up rent prices and displace long-term residents.”

Samuel Gold, executive director of the Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Governments, raised concerns about the bill, stating in testimony that it’s not clear what purpose licensure would serve, and that municipalities don’t have the staff to process or enforce licensing.

He added that municipalities already have the ability to prohibit short-term rentals in zoning regulations.

An example of that is Middlebury, which became one of the first towns in the state to ban short-term rentals when it approved an ordinance in November.

‘Property-owner rights’

For his part, Chu says the town of West Hartford is picking on the wrong landlord. His houses are situated less than the length of a football field from the town police department, and he doesn’t rent to college kids who might throw wild parties.

He said he primarily rents to corporate executives and families, often to those with children who attend Kingswood Oxford School, a private school on Trout Brook Drive that is also within walking distance of Raymond Road.

One of his properties is rented to a local family that was recently displaced by a fire.

“Part of my property-owner rights is to be able to rent my property out,” he said.

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