Two residences on Seena Lane owned by Ashland Planning Commission Chairwoman Melanie Mindlin were rented out illegally as short-term vacation homes and as of Friday still were listed online with airbnb.com.
Mindlin, who lives on Calypso Court, said her tenants were renting out the homes at 1342 and 1338 Seena Lane as vacation stays, and she has asked them to stop. But on Friday, both houses were still listed and appeared to be available for bookings.
The houses are in a single-family residential zone, where vacation rentals by owner are not allowed.
Mindlin said she became aware of the listing for the 1338 address several months ago, and asked its tenants to stop renting out the two-story home.
"They had been renting through airbnb without my approval being asked, but they did tell me about it at one point," Mindlin said. "When the issue came up and I found out that it was actually illegal ... I asked them to take it off and they took it off."
But according to information on airbnb.com, it appears Mindlin's renters expanded their guest options from only the spare bedrooms to making the entire home available for guests to rent.
Mindlin said she realized Friday her tenants at 1342 were also advertising a "charming garden studio" on airbnb.com. "I asked them to stop immediately when it came to my attention," Mindlin said.
Vacation rentals in Ashland are allowed only in multifamily zones if the homes are within 200 feet of major streets, according to city ordinances.
The Planning Commission recommended to the City Council that it study the issue of allowing vacation rentals in single-family zones, which are typically filled with houses rather than apartments and other buildings commonly found in multifamily zones.
During a January Planning Commission meeting, Mindlin voiced her support for considering loosening the rules and restrictions on homeowners who want to rent out their homes to tourists and other travelers for short stays, but recused herself during a June meeting from further discussing or voting on the issue.
Mindlin said she stepped away because City Attorney David Lohman recommended that she not be a part of the Planning Commission's deliberations surrounding vacation home rentals in Ashland, which it has been studying for nearly a year.
"I don't feel that I am biased about the issue," Mindlin said. "Whether my renters list the home on airbnb makes no difference to me financially.
"I don't actually have a strong opinion on the issue," added the commissioner, who has served since 2006. "There are a lot of good things to be said on both sides."
Last week, the Planning Commission recommended that the City Council allow vacation rentals in multifamily zones — whether or not they're within 200 feet of major streets — in Ashland's four historic districts, which comprise the downtown and many surrounding streets.
The owners would have to go through a planning process and secure conditional-use permits.
The council on Tuesday said there were too many unanswered questions about relaxing vacation rental rules and will take up the issue again Aug. 19. But a majority of the councilors did say they were not interested in allowing vacation rentals in single-family zones.
Several Ashland inn owners have said illegal vacation rental owners have an unfair advantage because they are not collecting lodging taxes from visitors, haven't won land-use approval, don't have business licenses or liability insurance, and don't have to undergo health and safety inspections.
The city has collected information on about 70 properties where there is suspected illegal vacation rental activity, according to a recent city staff memo to councilors.
Of those, about 45 are in single-family zones, the memo said.
The city collected background information on 40 illegal vacation rental homes and found that 16 previously had been used for long-term rental housing, the memo said.
In May 2012 the city sent out letters to about 40 property owners in multi- and single-family zones who were renting their homes to tourists illegally.
Assistant City Planner Amy Gunter said Mindlin was not one of the property owners who received a letter.
The practice of renting out homes for overnight or short stays in Ashland — and across the nation and internationally — has boomed in recent years thanks to websites such as www.airbnb.com and www.vrbo.com.
Mayor John Stromberg said questions remain about whether allowing more vacation rentals will cause parking problems, reduce the availability of housing for long-term renters who want to live in Ashland and negatively impact local bed and breakfast inns.
Councilors said they also need more input from stakeholders, including people operating vacation rentals illegally who are afraid to come forward, and members of neighborhoods who may be impacted but are not aware that potential changes are being discussed.
Sam Wheeler is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.