Burlington city councilors fell one vote short on Monday in their attempt to override a mayoral veto of new regulations for short-term rentals.
It originally appeared that councilors had the needed two-thirds majority to defeat Mayor Miro Weinberger's veto, as eight of 12 councilors voted last month in favor of the regulations. But Councilor Karen Paul (D-Ward 6) flipped at Monday night's meeting, which stretched into early Tuesday, and cast the decisive vote to sustain the veto.
"I don't believe this ordinance is the way for Burlington to go," Paul said. "I think that we can do better."
The decision effectively places the city back at square one when it comes to regulating short-term rentals. Only a fraction of the properties are permitted, and under a city ordinance that regulates traditional bed and breakfasts. Some councilors, however, vowed to take up the issue soon after newly elected members are sworn in on April 4.
The ordinance sought to ban short-term rentals from operating anywhere but in a host's permanent residence, with few exceptions. Unsurprisingly, short-term rental hosts didn't like the regs. Weinberger vetoed the measure last week over concerns that the rules were too restrictive.
In his veto letter, the mayor asked councilors to consider allowing one short-term rental unit in "small, owner-occupied structures" such as accessory dwelling units, duplexes or triplexes. Councilor Sarah Carpenter (D-Ward 4) had proposed similar language last month, but councilors rejected it.
On Monday, some councilors argued that the city's housing shortage calls for a crackdown on properties rented out on sites such as Airbnb. Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District) refuted Weinberger's argument that the regulations are an overreach.
"This is absurd. We have zoning that tells people what kind of windows they can put in, what kind of siding they can use, how tall the building can be, where it must be placed on a lot, what kind of insulation it must have," she said. "We are intimately involved in whatever building and use goes on in every single building in this city."
Councilor Paul said she changed her mind after doing a deeper dive into short-term rental data. She found that the 200 or so units used for such rentals represent just 1 percent of the city's rental stock. And despite what proponents of the regs have argued, Paul said, it's unlikely that property owners would have converted short-term rentals into long-term ones.
Paul said short-term rentals do need additional guidelines — including a possible cap on their number — but that as proposed, the ordinance was unbalanced against rental hosts.
"Given the dynamics of our city, the number of STRs — which has not increased in the last year and a half — and the fact that we should be focusing our attention on broader housing solutions, I don't think this ordinance is a sound decision based on data," she said.
The Vermont Short-Term Rental Alliance issued a press release immediately following the vote, thanking the council for sustaining Weinberger's veto and pledging to support "more reasonable short-term rental policies."
"Taking the time to develop a well-vetted proposal will pay off in the long run for the residents of Burlington," the statement said. "We look forward to working collaboratively with the new City Council on a new proposal."
In other housing news, the council approved a plan to build 30 "shelter pods" for homeless people in a city-owned parking lot at 51 Elmwood Avenue. Councilor Mark Barlow (I-North District) cast the lone "no" vote.
The site was one of 10 the city considered. Other options included the so-called "gateway block" at 220 Main Street; the Burlington Electric Department parking lot on Pine Street; and a city parking lot behind the former Bove's restaurant on Pearl Street. Sears Lane, a South End property that was home to an encampment for years until the city shut it down this fall, was also on the list.
The Elmwood lot was chosen for its proximity to services, including public transportation, and because the facility can easily connect to municipal electricity, water and sewer, city officials said. The pod village will also have its own bathroom facilities and a "community resource center" that will function as a low-barrier daytime shelter with food, hygiene products and staff that can connect people to various services.
The site, which still needs zoning approval, is slated to open in July and operate for three years. The council last month approved spending $3 million in federal coronavirus relief funds for the effort, which also includes hiring a new city staffer to end homelessness.
During the meeting's public forum, several people spoke against siting the pods downtown, specifically next to the McKenzie House, an apartment building for seniors and people with disabilities. One longtime resident, Scotia Jordan, suggested placing the pods on 51 Institute Road, the shuttered Burlington High School campus, which was also on the list considered by city officials.
"There is a bus route there. There is parking," Jordan said. "There is privacy for people who want to live that way and keep their dignity rather than fencing them in like caged animals and frightening older people in the McKenzie House."
Residents of Elmwood Avenue who spoke Monday night had different takes, particularly on the issue of crime. Dan Bito said the neighborhood has seen its share of theft, but said that the pod neighborhood could help bring people out of poverty and "disincentivize them from the antisocial behavior."
"People who are homeless need immediate support without preconditions or delays. I really would hate to see this proposal delayed because of the location," Bito said.
Also at Monday's meeting, councilors voted to install bike lanes on both sides of the two-block stretch of North Winooski Avenue between Riverside Avenue and North Union Street. Work should begin next year.
Officials said the vote represents a compromise between cycling advocates and drivers who have been at odds over the street for years. The city had originally proposed installing bike lanes along the entire 1.7-mile corridor but backed off after businesses on North Winooski Avenue complained about losing dozens of parking spots between Riverside and Pearl Street. The city has already built bike lanes on South Winooski Avenue, with minimal impact on parking.
The plan approved on Monday would remove 40 of 103 parking spaces on North Winooski Avenue, instead of the 82 in an earlier proposal. The council resolution also calls on the city to meet with businesses and nonprofits to "identify off-street parking options prior to removing on-street parking."
Weinberger hailed the decision as "one of the most important votes we've had in years" that moves the city toward its goal of ending fossil fuel use by 2030. He also responded to business and property owners who spoke against the project.
"The negative impacts are not going to be anywhere nearly as concerning as were suggested by some of the stakeholders tonight. We're going to work to make sure that they're not," the mayor said. "The benefits will be massive and will be felt for generations. Let's get this done tonight."
Councilor Shannon said the project benefits cyclists at the expense of many, and listed several: patients at the Community Health Centers of Burlington, refugees, restaurant owners and handicapped drivers.
"This is not needed, and it's going to hurt so many people," she said. "It really is not equitable. It's ableist. It does not recognize the community needs."
In what was his last meeting after a decade on the council, outgoing City Council President Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) took the rare step of passing the gavel so he could join the debate. He argued that the city needs to take drastic steps to address climate change, and that cyclists shouldn't feel unsafe.
After a protracted debate, the resolution passed 8-4 with councilors Shannon, Carpenter, Barlow and Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7) voting no.
The nearly seven-hour meeting ended with goodbyes from the three councilors whose terms end early next month: Tracy and Chip Mason (D-Ward 5), who both served for a decade, and Jane Stromberg (P-Ward 8).
"It's only fitting that the last meeting the three of us will participate in was one involving heated debate on each and every issue," Mason quipped. "Thank you to everyone. It's been a heck of a ride. I'm still enthusiastic about the future of Burlington."