Blackstone grapples with Airbnb concerns on Lake Hiawatha

Blackstone grapples with Airbnb concerns on Lake Hiawatha

Celia Pereira is pictured in front of the house at 131 Lakeshore Drive that she rents using Vrbo and Airbnb. (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)

BLACKSTONE – A short-term rental property on Lake Hiawatha is testing the patience of neighbors and tapping into a national debate over where and how towns should regulate Airbnb and other rental services.

Celia Pereira owns a waterfront home at 131 Lakeshore Drive. The property is on the western shore of Lake Hiawatha, a residential community that spans Blackstone and Bellingham, Mass.

Pereira told The Valley Breeze she began renting the property on Airbnb and Vrbo last year to make money. A single mom and owner of an insurance company, Pereira said she lives in the basement apartment with two of her children and rents out the upper floors to guests.

“My guests are A+ guests. I never have a complaint,” she said.

Her neighbors, however, tell a different story. In recent weeks, residents of Lakeshore Drive have begun attending meetings of the Board of Health and Board of Selectmen to complain about an overcrowded waterfront, loud music, unsupervised children and near-dog bites at the lakeside property. Dean Capozzoli, a resident of 123 Lakeshore Drive, told the Board of Selectmen he usually comes home from work at 5 p.m. to find people already drinking on the beach a few doors down with small children running around.

“It’s just, it’s an absolute nightmare,” he said.

One of the main issues is an outdated septic system that failed inspection at the time Pereira purchased the home in 2017. According to town Health Agent Colleen Strapponi, Pereira agreed to bring the system into compliance by October of 2021. The home’s cesspool is currently rated for three bedrooms, which according to Massachusetts state law should serve no more than six people.

A listing on Vrbo advertises the house as a five-bedroom home that sleeps 14 guests, while a listing on Airbnb describes it as a “gorgeous lakefront home” with four bedrooms that sleeps 16 guests. Pereira said the basement apartment where she lives with her family also has two bedrooms. During a Board of Health meeting this week, she said the home had six bedrooms when she bought it and questioned why a permit was ever issued for a home that does not match the septic system.

“How can someone else give a permit to build a house that cannot support the system today?” she asked.

Pereira said she’s prepared to upgrade the cesspool to support more bedrooms, but Board of Health members said she would need special permission from the state to replace the current system with a larger one.

Pereira told The Breeze the house had been vacant for five years when she purchased it in 2017. Since then, she said, she’s spent $200,000 fixing it up and removed 15 trucks’ worth of trash from the property.

She also said she believes many of the homes around the lake don’t meet Massachusetts Title 5 requirements for septic systems and feels the law should be applied equally.

“If I have my rights violated because I’m making money on my property, they have to do the same thing. The law has to be for everyone,” she said.

While Pereira argued she should be able to do what she wants with her property, neighbors claim she’s running a business in the middle of a residential area. Nancy Davidson, a resident of Lakeshore Drive, compared the property to a Hilton hotel and said the frequent large gatherings of guests are disrupting the neighborhood.

“Two weeks ago, there were 17 cars and a limousine there because there was a wedding offsite,” she told The Breeze. “The people themselves were nice and friendly, but 17 cars and a limousine on our street. It’s disruptive.”

Ann Colton, a next-door neighbor, said she doesn’t have a problem with Airbnbs in general, but they should be required to fit the neighborhood.

“It attracts a large partying crowd, and that’s the problem. She’s let it get out of control,” she said.

Pereira denied that characterization of her guests, saying she mostly rents to families and it’s rare for her to rent to groups as large as 10 or 12. She said she tried to build a fence to shield her property but stopped when she ran into issues with a neighbor.

“If you don’t want to look at me and my guests, just look the other way,” she said.

She pointed out that neighbors sometimes have large groups of family and friends over for holidays and asked how it’s different from her renting her property to guests.

Neighbors also raised concerns about the impact of the septic system on the water quality at the lake. Larry Sposato, president of the Lake Hiawatha Association, told Board of Health members the lake has tested higher for bacteria in recent years and encouraged the town to perform their own water testing.

According to Robert Dubois, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, the town does not currently have anything in its zoning ordinances to address short-term rental properties. He thinks the town should come up with an ordinance to regulate them in the future.

“You read about these issues and hear about them more and more as we go on in life,” he said. “It’s something that we’re going to have to address. Places like Lake Hiawatha were made for little cottages, and if they were to be rented, they would be rented for a family or someone who was renting it year round or at least for six months.”

According to Town Counsel Patrick Costello, the town is currently looking into several issues at Pereira’s property, including the cesspool, the number of units and concerns about a wall she built near the lakefront. Strapponi said Pereira will be required to pump out the septic system every 10 days until it’s brought into compliance, something she has agreed to. The Zoning Board and the Conservation Commission are also looking into the matter.