BREAKING: Mass. SJC Rules on Compatibility of Short-Term Rentals with Single-Family Zoning

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The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) today weighed in on the zoning permissibility of short-term rentals, a much-contested and important area of concern.

In its decision in Styller v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Lynnfield (pdf), the SJC affirmed a Land Court decision concerning an appeal from a decision of the Lynnfield Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), which affirmed a cease-and-desist order prohibiting short-term rentals (STRs) of the plaintiff Styller’s property without a special permit.

Styller owned a five-bedroom single-family house on three aces in a single-residence zoning district.  The Styller family lived on the premises. Beginning in 2015, Styller rented the property through various short-term rental websites. The STR use came to the town’s attention after a renter held a 100+ person party at the property, during which one attendee was shot and killed. The Building Inspector sent a cease-and-desist notice, concluding that the STR use was an “additional” use: either a prohibited hotel use or an unauthorized lodging or rooming house use. Styller appealed to the ZBA, which voted to uphold the Building Inspector’s determination without explicitly addressing whether the STR use was a hotel, or lodging or rooming house, use. Styller appealed that decision as well, and while the appeal was pending, the town amended its zoning bylaw to prohibit STRs in its single-residence zoning districts without prior authorization.

On appeal Styller argued that the STR use was a preexisting nonconforming use such that he could continue to rent his property. The Land Court judge disagreed, concluding that the STR use was an impermissible “additional” use of the property. The STR use was not a permitted accessory use because it was “not ‘clearly incidental to the use of the principal building’ as a single family residence,” and was not “customary in connection with the principal building, other structure or use of land.” Therefore, the zoning bylaw, which allowed only specifically identified uses, prohibited the STR use. The Land Court held that the STR use without a special permit violated the new bylaw, which prohibits rentals of 30 days or less in the single-residence district, and affirmed the ZBA’s decision.

On further appeal the SJC affirmed the Land Court’s conclusion, albeit on slightly different grounds. After concluding that the case was still justiciable despite the fact that Styller no longer owned the property – in part because “the viability of short-term rental use of property in the context of existing zoning regulations [is] one of public importance” – the SJC concluded that while the STR use was not an “additional,” accessory use of the property, it also was not a permitted, principal use. The SJC reasoned that “short-term rental use of a one family home is inconsistent with the zoning purpose of the single-residence zoning district in which it is situated, i.e., to preserve the residential character of the neighborhood,” which character is compatible with long-term rentals but not short-term rentals. The SJC concluded that the ZBA was within its authority to determine that use of a dwelling in a single-family residential district suggests a measure of permanent residence that is inconsistent with transient uses, such as STRs. The SJC did not demarcate a length of stay that defines a long-term versus a short-term rental.

The judgment in Styller will not become final for 30 days to permit the current owners of the property to intervene, should they choose. Regardless of how the case concludes, this decision serves as notice of the SJC’s view of STRs in the zoning context and will surely affect the ongoing, often heated debate over STRs happening in cities and towns across the Commonwealth.