Airbnb, Vrbo, Uber, Lyft and about two dozen other internet-based sharing businesses have spread so quickly through the digital universe that small towns, big cities and even states have yet to figure out how to react to industries that have no physical presence.
They enter local economies, take what they can, exact a toll on local enterprises and alter the composition of neighborhoods, and there’s little anyone can do about it.
Their transactions are conducted in the ether, between individuals and Wizard of Oz-like providers who are never seen, have no local stake, and who are unaccountable for whatever impact their operations might have on community affairs.
This is and isn’t right, as the Berlin Planning Commission has realized in its discussions of what to do about Airbnb’s growing presence and the creep of short-term rentals it is fostering in otherwise year-round residential neighborhoods.
Worcester County government is currently involved in trying to establish some form of regulation through rental licensing, and Ocean City government has already done that, although neither has said, or even can say, how and where such dealings should be conducted.
That’s the free enterprise system, which is to say a perfectly legal commercial entity and its customers can do whatever they want, although, as rental licensing shows, they may have to pay a little something to government do it.
How Berlin officials deal with this phenomenon bears watching, because its circumstance is somewhat different than the resort’s or the county’s.
Berlin government and residents have spent decades building and protecting a historically correct and charm-infused model community, and now, when confronted by influences far beyond its reach, it wants to do something, but has yet to determine what it can, can’t or should do.