Voters to decide: Word Barn arts venue owners take fight for Airbnb to Exeter Town Meeting

·5 min read

EXETER — The owners of the Word Barn are asking voters to support a zoning amendment at the March 8 Town Meeting that would allow them to keep the short-term Airbnb rental they say is key to the arts venue's "survival."

Ben Anderson and his wife, Sara, filed the citizens' petition signed by more than 100 residents that aims to change the definition of a bed and breakfast in the town's zoning ordinance.

"(If the amendment gains approval) it will put us one giant step closer to restoring the Word Barn’s Airbnb (a key revenue source that subsidizes our offerings) and make Exeter more affordable for others like us at the same time," Anderson said in an email to supporters.

Ben Anderson, co-owner of the Word Barn, has put forth a citizen petition to amend the town’s zoning ordinance to allow him to continue operating a one-unit Airbnb on the property.
Ben Anderson, co-owner of the Word Barn, has put forth a citizen petition to amend the town’s zoning ordinance to allow him to continue operating a one-unit Airbnb on the property.

The proposed zoning amendment comes after the Andersons received a cease-and-desist order from the town last year barring them from operating their one-room rental inside the barn adjacent to their home at 66 Newfields Road.

While the couple later sought a special exception from the town's Zoning Board to rent out the room as either a short-term rental or a bed and breakfast, it was denied in July and then again in September.

The denial has since been appealed to Rockingham Superior Court and a hearing on the merits of the case is scheduled for March 11.

Previous story: Word Barn owners sue Exeter board over denial to operate Airbnb, claim it's for events

At issue is that short-term rentals are not permitted in town and the Andersons' rental did not fit the definition of a bed and breakfast in the town's zoning ordinance.

A bed and breakfast, according to the ordinance, must be located in a primary residence and cannot be "used for any other hospitality business-related uses.”

Anderson said his proposed zoning amendment would allow a bed and breakfast in a detached accessory structure if it's on the same property as the primary owner. It also strikes language that no other commercial activity can take place on the property.

Anderson presented the article to the Planning Board Jan. 13 and gained their unanimous support for it.

Planning Board backs zoning change

Planning Board Vice-Chair Aaron Brown said when considering any amendment to the town's zoning ordinance he looks if there would be any unintended consequences with the change.

"I have had a hard time figuring out any unintended consequences (with this change) that would really be detrimental to the town of Exeter," Brown said at the meeting.

Anderson told the board the rental was on the property when he purchased the farmhouse and barn in 2013, and for a long time, they had a long-term tenant who lived there.

The Word Barn was created to promote the sharing and cultivation of the arts in an open and welcoming setting, according to owner Ben Anderson.
The Word Barn was created to promote the sharing and cultivation of the arts in an open and welcoming setting, according to owner Ben Anderson.

When the couple gained permission from the town to operate the Word Barn as a community gathering space for the arts in 2017, he said they made the decision to transition the apartment to a short-term rental and advertised it on Airbnb. He said they enjoyed a 98% occupancy rate, and the revenue became an important key to keeping the arts venue afloat.

"Everyone familiar with the arts know... you need financial support in order to stay healthy, vibrant and to survive," he said.

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He said their renters not only helped defray the costs of the venue but also helped local businesses as they would eat and shop in downtown Exeter.

Proposal will not open door to short-term Airbnb rentals, Anderson says

Anderson said his proposed zoning amendment is in the spirit of what the Planning Board intended when the bed and breakfast language was first discussed back in 1995.

He told the Planning Board the language preventing a bed and breakfast from other "hospitality or business-related uses" was included to prevent the establishments from expanding into becoming a wedding venue.

"The zoning ordinance already protects against that," he said. "No one in Exeter with a bed and breakfast can use it for any other venue without obtaining relief first."

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Anderson said the ordinance still requires the owner to live on the property and limits the number of rentable rooms to four. Operators would still have to provide a dining area and breakfast.

He said the minor change will not open the doorway to short-term rentals.

"This is not a proposal to usher in Airbnb (or short-term rentals)," he said. "Exeter remains protected because owners have to live on the property and otherwise comply with the bed and breakfast ordinance."

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Ben Anderson, co-owner of the Word Barn, has put forth a citizen petition to amend the town’s zoning ordinance to allow him to continue operating a one-unit Airbnb on the property.
Ben Anderson, co-owner of the Word Barn, has put forth a citizen petition to amend the town’s zoning ordinance to allow him to continue operating a one-unit Airbnb on the property.

Planning Board members noted the change would not impact anyone operating a bed and breakfast.

"It's less restrictive," Brown said. "It allows them to do something they can't do now. So, they are not losing any rights."

Selectwoman Molly Cowan, who serves as the Select Board's representative to the Planning Board, said she supported the amendment.

"This is helping attract people to the town, helping small businesses and letting people stay in their homes," she said.

The zoning amendment will be discussed at the town's deliberative session Feb. 5 at Exeter High School. It will go before voters at the March 8 Town Meeting.

This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: Exeter NH voters to decide fate of Airbnb at Word Barn arts venue