Airbnb house has irked neighbors in Lawrence Township

Scott Jacobs
Plantlife start to turn with the fall weather at Colonial Lake Park in Lawrence Township on Nov 2.

Oaklyn Terrace had always been a quiet, family-oriented neighborhood – until the new owner of a house on the block turned the property into a hotel.

At least, that’s what neighbors told Lawrence Township Council at its Aug. 20 meeting.

Several Oaklyn Terrace residents complained to the council that the house, which is on the short block that leads into Veterans Park, has become a de facto hotel since its owner has listed it with Airbnb.

According to the website, A‌i‌r‌b‌n‌b‌, ‌ I‌n‌c‌.‌, is an online marketplace for arranging or offering lodging, primarily homestays or tourism experiences. The company does not own any of the real estate listings, nor does it host events; it acts as a broker, receiving commissions from each booking.

Nick Sferra, who lives near the house on Oaklyn Terrace, told the council that the new owner purchased the house and made improvements to it and tried to sell it. Sferra said he noticed some people had moved into the house in mid-June, and then a few days later they moved out.

Another group of people moved into the house, stayed a few days and then left, Sferra said. This has happened several times over the past few months, he said. The license plates on the cars in the driveway and on the street are from out of state – California, Connecticut and New York.

“I’m not against Airbnb. I don’t mind if a neighbor does it for a couple of days, but this has become a hotel. I can’t have a hotel next to my house,” Sferra said.

Sferra pointed to Sedona, Ariz., where investors have been buying up properties and turning them into short-term Airbnb rentals. Jersey City recently passed an ordinance that cracks down on Airbnb rentals, he said.

Ken Kawalek, who lives across the street from the Oaklyn Terrace property, said that during one recent weekend, there were more than a dozen people staying in the house. The people were rowdy, and one woman was drunk, he said.

Kawalek said the neighbors are concerned because they don’t know when a new group will be moving into the house, or who they are. Some of the renters are quiet, but other renters are not, he said.

“We are a nice, peaceful neighborhood. If you want a hotel, put it on Route 1. There is no vetting, no inspections (of the house). To call it a residence – I wouldn’t call it a residence,” Kawalek said.

Vanu Chu, who lives on Oaklyn Terrace, said he opposed its use as an Airbnb. The house is being used as a hotel, he said. “Where is the (hotel) manager, where is the security, where is the staff,” he said.

Sferra and Kawalek reminded Township Council that the house is near Veterans Park, which is adjacent to Lawrence High School. Children walk home from school through the park, Sferra said, and Kawalek added that “it’s the perfect place” for a potential child molester.

Municipal Manager Kevin Nerwinski said the township is aware of the house, and had reached out to the owner. Airbnb is not a permitted use in Lawrence Township, he said, agreeing that there is a “serious” public safety concern.

“It is unacceptable,” Nerwinski said.

Nerwinski said Airbnb and short-terms rentals is a new issue in many communities. There are issues of property rights, and he said he is not certain how the courts would interpret it if there were to be a lawsuit.

“It comes down to, is Airbnb a commercial use or a residential use. Airbnb says it’s residential – it’s short term. Township Council joins me (in believing) it’s a serious public safety issue,” he said.

Mayor Christopher Bobbitt assured the residents that “we are on the case.”