Berlin Town Council

Berlin Town Administrator Jeff Fleetwood, right, discusses licensing issues for short-term rentals with Councilmembers Shaneka Nichols and Troy Purnell on Monday.

(Sept. 30, 2021) Proposed licensing for short-term rentals in Berlin raised concerns during the mayor and Town Council meeting on Monday, as Planning Director Dave Engelhart reviewed a draft of a short-term rental ordinance developed in June at a council work session.

Engelhart’s summary of points established then by the council touched on enforcement of violations, occupancy limits and license suspension procedures.

Among the topics raised at that meeting were parking, noise violations, room size, the need to post rental licenses on site and clearer definitions of occupancy limits.

In addition to incorporating the current town code requirement of a minimum 70 square feet of floor space for one occupant, Engelhart suggested that the requirement be set at 40 square feet per occupant be if multiple parties are involved.

Proposed parking requirements included, “one additional off-street parking space shall be provided for each bedroom rented totaling three or more bedrooms.”

“This allows for the requirement in town code that that each dwelling unit have a minimum of two off-street parking spaces without putting undue burden on the property owner,” he said.

Engelhart said earlier council discussions indicated additional language should be added to enable appeals of violations or suspensions of licenses before the Berlin Board of Housing Review. This procedure would mirror existing town code. 

“Some of these we already have on the books for enforcement of noise or parking,” he said. “This would just be another application of those same ordinances that we have in place today.”

Councilmember Jack Orris asked about requiring an emergency contact to live within a half-hour drive from rentals, which are largely marketed through online platforms such as Airbnb or VRBO.

Engelhart said the commute time limit could be added, but that the draft ordinance already requires the property owner or his or her agent to live nearby and that the owner or responsible agent be on call 24 hours.

Councilmember Shaneka Nichols asked which zoning districts would be covered by the proposed rental rules.

In addition to residential districts R1-4, the ordinance would also regulate short-term rentals in business districts B-1-3 where dwelling units are permitted.

To provide protection for districts comprised of single-family homes, the ordinance includes a requirement that short-term rentals in R-1 or R-2 neighborhoods are the owners’ permanent dwelling listed with the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation.

Engelhart said the restriction was added based on extensive research of other jurisdictions licensing rules.

“You couldn’t go in and buy six houses on the street and operate them all as short-term rentals,” he said.

As proposed, the rental ordinance would permit homeowners the option to rent extra bedrooms or the entire property for limited terms.

Councilmember Jay Knerr questioned the procedures for addressing violations and license suspensions or revocations.

“Should it be strengthened for noise violations?’ he said.

Berlin Police Chief Arnold Downing said noise violations are issued to the perpetrator.

Knerr asked what circumstances could result in rental licenses being revoked.

Engelhart said ordinance language could be altered to include violations of rental rules or any town code sections.

Knerr asked if a “three strikes” rule would be appropriate before yanking licenses after issuance.

Town Administrator Jeff Fleetwood opposed limiting the count.

“I would not want to pigeonhole myself and say three strikes using that analogy for a second,” he said. “You could have one violation that’s off the Richter scales … and that decision may be made at that point.”

Knerr said the town should ensure that procedures exist to prevent continuing problems from short-term rentals.

“You also want owners to be accountable for these issues,” he said.

Community opinion was the main concern raised by Councilmember Troy Purnell.

“I still want to hear from the public,” he said.

Although not yet at the public hearing stage, the council received comments from multiple community members, including correspondence from Atlantic Hotel General Manager Laura Sterns.

Fleetwood read a letter sent by Sterns that day opposing rental regulations.

Sterns, who relocated to Berlin from Ocean City 15 years ago, currently serves on Berlin’s Historic District and Parks commissions.

“I have a vested interest in this town,” she said.

Until recently, Sterns did not envision short-term rentals causing issues in Berlin.

“Truthfully, I wasn’t expecting Airbnb to be much of a problem until it was,” she said.

That view was altered after Sterns witnessed a bad example of short-term rentals being used for party purposes.

“I saw a party where a liquor tent was left overnight fully stocked for anyone passing by,” she said. “What if underage kids had seen this?”

Sterns said short-term rentals are operated as for-profit businesses that should not be permitted in residential areas.

Berlin Planning Commission Vice-Chairman Ron Cascio recommended that residential rental rules require owners be onsite.

“That’s a self-policing mechanism,” he said.

Cascio concurred with Sterns that short-term rentals represent business ventures in residential sections, with inevitable problems associated.

“I truly think we have to nip this in the bud before it becomes a proliferation,” he said. “I know people are buying up houses with that intent.”

Cascio suggested amending the town zoning code to be in line with current demographics and housing needs.

“Currently, it is not allowed under town code to rent rooms in secondary structures,” he said.

Mayor Zach Tyndall said it was evident ordinance language revisions were in order.

Tyndall suggested ordinance violations from short-term rentals be tied to that property and not an individual guest.

“Also trying to vet out what that violation schedule would look like,” he said.

Councilmember Dean Burrell acknowledged short-term rentals currently operate in Berlin.

“This is our attempt to standardize and bring that under some type of control and compliance,” he said.

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