Andover Airbnb operators should be hoping the neighbors don’t complain, according to town officials.
A series of decisions by the town’s building inspector and Zoning Board of Appeals shut down one specific Airbnb in town. Town officials have said they will take any action on other short-term rentals in town in the absence of complaints or any broader rules and regulations set at either the town level or state-wide.
Neighbors’ complaints against Kris and Sarah Girrell at 1 Meadowbrook Drive led to the town sending the homeowners a cease and desist letter by the building inspector to halt hosting guests via the online short-term rental platform this past March.
The Zoning Board of Appeals doubled down on that decision last week by affirming Building Inspector Chris Clemente’s decision to bar the Girrells from hosting paid house guests.
According to the Public Registry of Lodging Operators, the Girrells are one of 24 homeowners in Andover to be registered by the state as a short-term rental or bed and breakfast. The state registry was implemented in 2019 to tax short-term rentals run out of residential homes, like those on Airbnb and other online hosting platforms. At least two others operate in the same zone, according to state records.
When asked what the board’s decision means for other short-term rental hosts, Clemente said, “At this point nothing right now. We are complaint-driven.”
“I know it’s not the best answer, but we deal with complaints as they arise,” he said.
Clemente ruled the town’s zoning bylaws must specifically state the permitted uses for a particular property. “Boarding or lodging houses,” which are rented to members who are not family, are outlawed in the single residence zone the Girrells live in, according to current zoning laws. The laws were written before Airbnb existed, and has yet to be updated.
The Girrells question if Clemente’s decision was appropriate given others in town also operate Airbnbs.
“They can’t shut us down as a single entity and not the others,” Kris said with frustration.
According to a search this week, there are more than a dozen similar listings of people renting rooms in their houses on the website. Two other short-term rentals are also registered in the same zoning area, according to the state registry.
The Girrells have been renting out a bedroom in their basement as a suite for four years, Sarah said. Last year they had 52 different bookings, most of which were by single people, she said. Prior to being shut down by the town, the Girrells were designated as a “superhost” on the platform, meaning past visitors have ranked the space as very clean and they have more than 250 five-star ratings from guests who have visited over the year, she said.
Sarah described conversations and cross-cultural culinary exchanges with guests that helped open up her world while she was still in Andover, she said. She and Kris also enjoy staying in Airbnbs when they travel, she said.
“While we made a little bit of money, that wasn’t the purpose,” she said, adding it did help while her son was in college. “We love traveling and meeting travelers. That’s the part that breaks my heart is that we don’t have that magnificent exposure.”
Sarah explained they had no issues in their Andover neighborhood until the pandemic struck and everyone was home more often. They first found out about neighbor complaints when town officials got involved, she said.
Last July their neighbor, Susan Wagner, at 2 Meadowbrook Drive wrote to then-Select Board member Dan Koh asking to ban Airbnbs from the town because of a home on Meadowbrook Drive, according to emails obtained from the Zoning Board of Appeals.
“To be honest, I don’t think they are breaking any zoning laws, so I’m not sure anything can be done, other than establishing legislation to place limits on short-term rentals in Andover,” Wagner wrote in the email.
“It seems absurd someone should be able to rent a room 6-7 nights per week for up to 5 people for $60/night in a quiet, residential neighborhood.”
Wagner again wrote to town officials in October. Two other neighbors wrote emails, one in October and another in March, according to records from the board.
On March 18, Clemente sent a cease and desist order to Kris and Sarah Girrell at 1 Meadowbrook Drive to halt hosting guests.
The couple then appealed the decision to the Zoning Board of Appeals, which could have granted a variance to allow the couple to operate their Airbnb.
Following the appeal, seven neighboring families, including Wagner and her husband Lorenzo Buonanno, sent a letter to the board asking them not to allow the short-term rentals.
Wagner and Buonanno were joined by Brian and Sauwai Battles, Greg and Katie Bond, Kristin and Jim Kissane, Scott and Mimi LeBrun, Lahn and Shelley Penna and Sheldon and Marsha Rubin in describing the “tremendous detriment” caused to the neighborhood and town.
They detailed the smell of marijuana wafting from the backyard and “huge offensive stickers” on cars that were parked on the street.
“While these are legal activities, (do the homeowners) want to subject our children’s health and minds to the health hazards noted?” the neighbor’s letter questions.
They also submitted several news articles about murders and other violent crimes at Airbnbs as documents demonstrating why they wanted the Girrells to stop hosting guests.
“These transient visitors have no accountability to the neighborhood or community,” stated the letter.
The families also complained about large parties hosted at the house, including on one occasion when the police were called the day after.
The police report, filed on Sept. 12, states nothing about Airbnb guests, only that it was a “neighbor issue” and that “advice was given to caller.”
However, Kris wrote an email to town officials explaining the party in question “was actually not an Airbnb visitor,” instead it was a friend’s child who wanted to watch a basketball game with friends at their house.
Kris and Sarah and Attorney Mark Corner, their lawyer hired to fight the town’s cease and desist order, reiterated that many of the complaints about their Airbnb were actually from private functions.
Sarah said she’s remorseful the party thrown by her friend’s son did get out of control, however, she does intend to throw parties at her home.
“I trusted 20-something-year-olds,” she said.
It’s unclear what their next steps are, but Sarah said they are looking into the appeals process.
“The zoning board has their hands tied, and I think they need guidance,” Sarah said.
Addressing short-term rentals is likely something the town should address moving forward, he said.
It could be addressed at the town level. Zoning bylaws need to be submitted and voted on during Town Meeting.
Or it could be addressed at the state level, Clemente said, citing a recent court decision not allowing someone to rent out a home for short-term rentals in Lynnfield.
“That’s a recent decision, which could cause someone at the state to look into it,” he said.
Town Manager Andrew Flanagan did not return request for comment.