After Complaints of Unregulated Activity at Bald Hill Home, Wilton Looks to Tighten Rules on airbnbs

photo: screen grab airbnb

A home on Bald Hill Pl. operating as an airbnb has come under scrutiny recently after some questionable activities occurred at the location and neighbors complained to town authorities. The situation has highlighted an issue for town officials as the number of short-term rentals through companies like airbnb and vrbo has increased in Wilton and the surrounding region. As a result, Wilton officials are now re-examining how to approach similar rental properties, discussing whether current zoning regulations are specific enough and figuring out how to make sure residents — especially those renting their properties as short-term rentals — understand exactly what is and isn’t legal.

Town officials will discuss the issue at Monday evening’s (May 23) Planning and Zoning Commission meeting.

GOOD Morning Wilton spoke with Michael Wrinn, Wilton’s Director of Planning and Land Use Management and the Town Planner, to understand what is and what isn’t allowed under current regulations and what the town many need to clarify.

Town officials learned about the property on Bald Hill Pl. when residents on the street complained about different renters coming and going, and large groups renting the home and holding parties that disrupted the neighbors. The home is listed on airbnb at $373 a night under the title, “New England Residential Vacation House,” offering space to accommodate 10 people in four bedrooms with a vivid description:

“A cozy and quiet home with ample privacy; admiring the rays of sunshine piercing through the leaves of tall oak trees with your morning coffee will make your Sunday morning seem like a fantasy. Our home is fit for holding parties, with a backyard big enough to invite all your friends in and a blazing firepit to make the perfect barbecue.”

Reviews on the airbnb listing show that it has been rented out multiple times stretching back until at least August 2021.

More recently, it was rented to a film and television production company as the location for an ongoing reality TV dating show. The production shut down after town officials informed producers the shoot was in violation because no one had sought the appropriate permits.

While show producers did apply for permits to continue production “after the fact,” town officials couldn’t grant them due to other issues they subsequently discovered at the property. According to Wrinn, the property owner was in the middle of construction on what Wrinn estimated to be a 25-foot by 25-foot building in the backyard and hadn’t sought any building permits. He said the owner would have to apply and show the structure would comply with coverage and setback regulations with plans and land surveys. Until then, the town has issued a stop-work order on any further construction.

The owner of the Bald Hill Pl. property is listed as Xue and Son Health; on the airbnb listing the hosts are named “Fumin and Neil.”

GOOD Morning Wilton reached out to the owners via messaging through the airbnb website for comment regarding the neighborhood complaints and the problems they have run into with the town.

He responded shortly after, writing, “I’m sorry I could not rent it anymore.”

How Big a Problem for Wilton

First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice said she’s been keeping an eye on the airbnb phenomenon, and observed how it changed over the pandemic. Before there was only what she said was “a handful.” It’s grown, but not by much, as she explained when GMW contacted her for this story.

“Today, I counted 19 on airbnb and a smaller number on Vrbo, most of which were duplicates. That is a relatively small number compared to Wilton’s approximately 5,400 single-family homes. It doesn’t appear to be a town-wide problem, but when it occurs in your neighborhood as it did on Bald Hill’s and especially the volume of rentals that occurred there, it is a problem and it is a big problem,” she said.

Wilton’s Current Regulations

Wilton has land-use regulations that cover residential rental activity, and while they don’t specifically use the word ‘airbnb’ they do apply to short-term rentals, which are the most common type done through airbnb. Wilton’s existing regulations spell out the requirements for what’s allowed, and they clearly diverge from what some current Wilton property owners with airbnb rentals are offering.

“It says, you can have accommodations of not more than three roomers or borders by an owner-occupant of the building. So that tells us that you can have borders in your house, but that’s different from what is typically being done as an Airbnb where you have multiple people staying, [sometimes hosting] parties and weddings and that type of thing,” Wrinn explained.

Another key element, Wrinn added, is how short-term the rental period is.

“We look at boarders as… not a transient type of facility. That’s important — transient, where the renter comes and goes.”

The other requirement is that rental space must be shared with the owner-occupant.

“They don’t have the ability to have borders with separate cooking facilities. It has to be shared accommodations and the owners have to be on-site,” Wrinn said.

There are some exceptions. Owners don’t have to be on-site if the entire home is being rented long-term.

“We have a lot of those around now. They rent it for a year until they find another place, what have you, that’s perfectly legitimate. The concern is when it starts to get transient where it’s rented out for a weekend and it’s rented out for a week, or it’s rented out for a wedding or something like that. So there’s different degrees here of what’s appropriate or not. And a lot of it is case by case,” Wrinn clarified.

Separate accommodations are allowed if the property has an approved accessory dwelling unit, or ADU, for which the owner has sought and received a permit from the town.

“You can obviously rent out an ADU. It doesn’t have to be a family member. It doesn’t have to be yourselves. You can rent that out. That’s fine. Now it becomes a question of how often is that being rented. Those are intended to be rented to somebody both not on a transient level, meaning you have a different tenant in there every day, or you have multiple people other than what was supposed to be in there,” Wrinn said.

But who defines just how long ‘transient’ is, especially when it’s not spelled out in the Town Charter or any regulation? Posing an example of a three-month summer rental to Wrinn, he acknowledged that length of time is more transient than a full year, but possibly still long enough to be permissible.

“In my mind, [three months is] quite a long period of time, but is [‘transient’] two-and-a-half months? Is it two months? It’s a good question.

There are several other grey areas, Wrinn acknowledged, and that’s what P&Z will begin to discuss Monday evening.

“We need to have a discussion and determine where we’re going to go forward. Are we looking to allow short-term rentals like that? If we are, what conditions can we place on them to prevent some problems that we’ve been having? Are we going to look at how many days they can be rented out through the year? It’s important that you articulate what can and can’t be done there. You want to be clear that it’s not for filming, not for photo shoots, not for weddings or parties. That this is a residential house, so it’s for lodging; that you’re going there to act just as the owner is, it’s not a commercial use facility,” Wrinn said.

Disruption to the residential neighborhood is something the town wants to protect against. “The biggest issues you hear all around is, people come in and what starts out as six people, next thing you know, you’ve got 25 people in the backyard until two in the morning,” he added.

Ultimately, Wrinn says that the public likely will have time to weigh in on the issue, but not Monday evening. That will be reserved for the P&Z commissioners.

“I’m hoping the commission at the of the meeting will say, ‘Go explore this, figure out what can’t be done on both  sides and let’s come back and have a discussion.’ And eventually, if we do want to create further regulation or make changes, you’d have to go through a public hearing and hear what the public has to say,” he said.

And for anyone currently operating an airbnb, vrbo or other forms of short-term rentals, there are things Wrinn said you should absolutely know now.

“Use it as a residential use to not have a disturbance for your neighbors, not to have 12 cars in a driveway or on the road, not to have party events. I can’t say, ‘Yeah, go ahead and do what you want.’  Do what you want in conjunction with the zoning regulations, which is relatively limited, not transient, and it’s not for more than three boarders while the owner lives there,” Wrinn reiterated.

Vanderslice suspects that many property owners who have listed their properties as short-term rentals with airbnb or vrbo probably didn’t even consider checking with the town to see if it was allowed.

That will likely now change, and Vanderslice said the town will be interested to learn whether public opinion about airbnbs in Wilton will change based on current events.

“What has been happening on Bald Hill is a first for Wilton. Based on airbnb’s popularity and prior to your article, I expect there were a good number of your readers who would have opposed Wilton’s prohibition on airbnb. I expect [now] many have changed their minds,” she said.