At-large candidates face off – Seven City Council hopefuls share views on new hotels, short-term rentals
The seven candidates for the four at-large seats on the City Council faced off Thursday night in a candidates’ forum in the council chamber of City Hall before an audience of more than 60 people.
Of the seven candidates, only Richard “Wick” Rudd, a member of the city Zoning Board of Review for the past year and former member of the Planning Board for five years, is making his first run for elected office.
Hugo J. DeAscentis, a former member of the School Committee for 15 years, is making his first run for the council, while Justin McLaughlin is seeking to return to the council. He served on the council for 10 years, from 2006 to 2016, when he lost his bid for a sixth term.
Current Ward 1 Councilwoman Susan Taylor, first elected in 2016, is running for an at-large in this election. Current at-large council members Jamie Bova, Marco Camacho and Jeanne-Marie Napolitano are running for re-election to the council. The fourth current at-large council member, Mayor Harry Winthrop, is not running for re-election.
The forum was the second of three organized by the Alliance for a Livable Newport, a neighborhood advocacy group. Questions were posed by Kristine Hendrickson, associate vice president for Salve Regina University relations and Salve’s chief communications officer.
See ELECTION, A10
At-large candidates for Newport City Council, from left, Susan Taylor, Jeanne-Marie Napolitano, Marco Camacho, Hugo DeAscentis, Justin McLaughlin, Jamie Bova and Richard “Wick” Rudd take part in a forum Thursday night at City Hall. The forum was sponsored by the Alliance for a Livable Newport. [PETER SILVIA PHOTO]
From Page A1
There were no striking differences between the candidates on policy issues, and they all seemed to agree that short-term rentals through hosting platforms such as Airbnb represent a growing challenge for the city.
Even when questions focused on matters such as the three new hotels approved for upcoming construction in the city, the increasing cost of home purchases or apartment rentals, or the changing demographics of the city, the discussion seemed to come back to the disruptive effects of the online hosting platforms.
Napolitano said properties that are being used for profitable short-term rentals should perhaps be taxed at the commercial tax rate of $14.98 per $1,000 valuation instead of the lower residential tax rate of $9.99 per $1,000 valuation.
She and other candidates argued the use of properties for short-term rentals is forcing up the values of all properties and leading to higher rents for people who live in the city year-round.
“Our property values and rents are way too high for young people and young families,” Napolitano said.
Camacho said there are currently about 500 homes and apartments in Newport listed on the Airbnb website.
“They make tens of thousands of dollars for the owners and are not vetted like hotels and inns,” he said. He agreed these properties should be taxed at the commercial rate. Both Camacho and Napolitano pointed out that Airbnb provides the city with checks to cover room and sales taxes, but offers no breakdown on which properties had paid and how much.
“We don’t have a spreadsheet,” Camacho said.
Rudd pointed out that the Planning Board now has a task force subcommittee looking into short-term rentals and how to regulate them.
“It got way ahead of the city,” he said. “Owners of short-term rentals are getting $300 to $400 a night. It needs to be regulated.”
McLaughlin called for ordinances regulating shortterm rentals to be reviewed, changed where needed, and enforced.
“We need to change ordinances to protect the neighborhoods we have,” Bova said. “We want people who live here year-round to be in vibrant neighborhoods, not surrounded by nonowner occupied homes.”
Rudd welcomed the upcoming construction of new hotels on Hammetts Wharf where the yachting center was formerly located, at Long Wharf and America’s Cup Avenue, and on Broadway at the Fifth Element.
“We need about 1,000 new hotel rooms in the city or Airbnbs will explode,” he said.
Bova and Taylor expressed concerns though that new hotels cut city residents off from the waterfront, both physically and visually. They called for a review of city ordinances to make sure they are in compliance with the city’s land-use plan.
Taylor pointed out the planned Long Wharf hotel will be raised, with parking on the ground level.
“That affects the streetscape,” she said.
Rudd pointed out that the population of the city is expected to decline by 25 percent by the year 2036.
One of the questions noted was that by the end of the upcoming decade, in 2030, 50 percent of Newport’s population is expected to be over the age of 60.
“We need young families to move into the city,” DeAscentis said.
During the baby-boom years after World War II, the city was building and opening new schools, he said. In more recent years, as the population has decreased and aged, the city has been closing and consolidating schools, he said.
DeAscentis said it was possible to turn around that cycle.
He and other candidates said the schools have to be high-quality and high-performing in order to attract new families.
Bova noted, though, that the city needs “aging in place” policies to allow older residents to stay in their homes and get around when they can no longer drive.
The candidates were asked what they would do to address traffic problems, especially in the summer season, a question that often comes up during election season.
Rudd, with a bow to Mark Twain, said: “Everybody in Newport likes to talk about the traffic, but no one does anything about it.”
He said he would like to return to the possibility of constructing a parking garage where the Mary Street parking lot is now, and long-term possibly moving the Gateway visitors center to a new satellite parking lot that could be created on land freed up by a redesign of the Pell Bridge ramps.
Taylor said she would favor a parking facility on that freed-up land in the north end of the city that would be larger than is now being talked about. She said the parking facility should hold more than 600 vehicles and later perhaps up to 1,000.
She said people would be able to go into the city on a rail shuttle or shuttle trolleys.
None of the other candidates disagreed with that vision, and some had similar ideas.
The ongoing disagreements that the City Council and School Committee have when it comes to setting a budget for the School Department also was discussed.
Bova said the full City Council and full School Committee come together only once a year to discuss the school budget.
“We should meet more often,” she said. “Our goals intersect. When the schools benefit, the city benefits.”
Napolitano focused on the current school budget deficit, for which the council will take up a financing plan next week.
“We need more checks and balances,” she said. “I have been very supportive of the schools, but if we continue to have overspending of the school budget, it could affect the bond rating of the city.”
“There is a lack of transparency in school accounting,” McLaughlin said. “We need to have the city keep track of school finances.”
The third and final ALN forum, for the two candidates running for the Ward 1 seat and the two candidates running for the Ward 2 seat on the City Council, takes place Tuesday beginning at 6 p.m. in the council chamber of City Hall. The Ward 3 seat is uncontested.
Audience members listen as Newport City Council at-large candidates take part in a forum Thursday at City Hall sponsored by the Alliance for a Livable Newport.
[PETER SILVIA PHOTO]