Fall River landmark 'castle' taken off Airbnb due to zoning issue – Fall River Herald News

FALL RIVER — Like a lot of homeowners in recent years, Austin Feng said he’s found himself struggling to keep up with the utility bills — heating, water, and maintenance were costing him a fortune. And like many, he turned to a side-hustle: renting out his property online as a hotel. 
“I decided to seek the Airbnb service and use it to generate some income, so I can use that to run the house,” Feng said. 
But most homeowners don’t own the type of house Feng has — a million-dollar mansion at 503 Highland Ave., one of the city’s largest and most iconic properties.  
Feng bought the sprawling 1.5-acre, 17-room mansion a year and a half ago. Over the past several months he has rented it out via Airbnb, at rates from $900 to $1,200 a night, to people who’ve come to stay, he said, from across the country and even from overseas. His property has 20 five-star reviews from clients who gush over the villa’s luxurious accommodations; some say “we felt like royalty,” that the building felt like a “castle,” others that they were “a privileged group to experience a step back in time, the lifestyle of F. Scott Fitzgerald novels.” 
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It’s also illegal, according to city Building Inspector Glenn Hathaway. 
“To lease a house out on a short-term basis, whether it be a night or three nights or one week, and use it as an Airbnb or a bed and breakfast or whatever, is not an allowed use in a residential district,” Hathaway said. “Those are the zoning bylaws.” 
Feng must ask the Zoning Board of Appeals for a variance to allow his Airbnb operation to continue. He is scheduled to go before the board on Jan. 19. If it’s denied, Feng said, he may have to sell the property. But even if the ZBA grants his variance, Hathaway said, that’s only the first step of what Feng must do to comply with the law. 
“I’ve had numerous discussions,” Hathaway said. “This has been an ongoing battle between me and him for quite some time.” 
The 503 Highland mansion dates to 1924, and was first occupied by Nathan Durfee — not Dr. Nathan Durfee, one of the most prominent city fathers of the 19th century, but another Nathan Durfee notable in his own right. He was a businessman who was treasurer of the American Printing Co. and the Fall River Ironworks, retiring as president of Fall River Five Cent Savings Bank. He died in 1948 at age 81; his wife, Helena, died in 1961 at age 91. 
The house passed to a few well-off families connected to the Fall River community over the decades, including the Dubitskys, the Feitelbergs and the Audettes. It was sold to Feng in June 2021 for exactly $1 million. 
Feng works in banking. He said he has a wife and two young children, and lives in Wellesley — the Highland Avenue mansion is not his primary residence.  
“I think this property is gorgeous, first of all,” Feng said in an interview. “It’s huge. I first bought this place … to be my vacation home. … I enjoyed a summer there.” 
The city’s property card lists the home as having six bedrooms and four and a half bathrooms. “Boasting oak plank floors, iron gating and an impressive staircase lead to large scale bedrooms, each with their own private full baths,” reads the listing on Airbnb. “Fairy tale etched stained glass throughout, and a custom kitchen with English grapevine crown molding unveil her elegancy.” 
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Feng said after spending some time there, “Soon I realized the cost of maintaining this house is huge. I pretty much could not afford it just by living there myself.” 
He said he pays a gardener and a cleaner hundreds of dollars to maintain the property regularly. According to property records, taxes for 2021 ran over $14,000, and based on its most recent assessment could top $15,000. Even keeping the heat on has been expensive, Feng said.  
“Last winter, the worst month was $2,000 for the heat — about $1,900. And I kept the thermostat at about 60 degrees when I’m not around,” Feng said. “Only when people were staying there, I turned up the thermostat.”   
Because of those expenses, he said, “I need to get income for this house.” 
Feng said he has chosen his Airbnb guests “very carefully,” and has denied requests for people to rent the home to throw large parties. He said he allows a maximum of 12 people to stay overnight, with a maximum of 18 on the property at any time.  
“They come here for family reunions, for weddings,” he said. “Usually it’s a wedding in Newport.” 
He rents the home at a two-night minimum, with prices hovering around $1,000 a night depending on the day and time of year. That high price point, he said, means his guests tend to be older people with money.  
“And these people are very nice and polite people,” he said. “They always leave the place in great order.” 
The property itself, Feng said, “is very far away from neighbors, so I make sure I don’t disturb my neighbors.” 
Measurements show 503 Highland’s closest neighbor is Ninth Street Day Nursery, a preschool, about 80 feet to the north. To the south, the private home at 461 Highland Ave. is about 120 feet away. Across the street, about 200 feet away, is property owned by the Diocese of Fall River, a cosmetic medical office, and another private home at 526 Highland. To the rear, houses on Hanover Street are about 275 to 300 feet away. 
“I make sure I don’t get in other people’s way,” Feng said. “It’s a nice quiet place. The backyard is all enclosed with trees blocking views. It’s pretty private. You won’t have to worry about disturbing the neighborhood.” 
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Hathaway disagrees about that last, saying he was alerted to the fact that 503 Highland was being used as an Airbnb by neighbors who complained.  
“He has been doing this on occasion for some time, and they noticed some irregular activity, mainly on weekends,” Hathaway said, which he described as strangers coming and going late at night or early in the morning, with limousines and rented cars driven by chauffeurs.  
Hathaway said the issue with running an Airbnb in a single-family residential zone isn’t necessarily just noise complaints from neighbors — it’s that Feng has, without approval, changed the type of occupancy of his building from a private house to a hotel, and isn’t complying with the types of necessary legal safety regulations and building codes that every hotel must comply with. That breaks the law, Hathaway said; Feng noted that Hathaway has told him the city has the power to evict guests from the property.  
The building code for hotels, Hathaway said, is designed to have “life-safety mechanisms” to keep people safe in an emergency if they’ve never been there before — things like exit signs, lit hallways, fire sprinklers, and more. Hotels “are made so that strangers can find their way out in a reasonable amount of time and their path is marked.  
“This Airbnb stuff is not doing that,” Hathaway said. 
Especially in a building as large as the 503 Highland mansion, with as many rooms, strangers could get disoriented or lost in an emergency, Hathaway said.  
“If I’m on the second floor or the third floor … and a fire is in the main stairway, how are you going to find the rear stairway if you’ve never been there before? How are you going to find the doorway to get out of that building, such as exit lighting, or a proper means of identification to get out of that building?” Hathaway said.
In the building code, hotels must have emergency lighting for exits. “These Airbnbs do not do that,” he said. 
Some Airbnbs don’t comply with the handicapped accessibility laws that hotels have to follow, he said. “If you have a disability, such as you’re confined to a wheelchair, there’s no accessibility for you. … That’s not right,” Hathaway said. “Everybody else has to conform to those requirements. Why shouldn’t you?” 
The code is in place not only for the safety of guests, Hathaway said, but also to protect property owners. He described inspecting another Airbnb in Fall River about a year ago with improper locks on a rear exit door that Hathaway said would be unsafe in the event of a fire. The host balked and insisted it was OK.  
He said he told that Airbnb host that if a tragedy occurred, “everything you’ve worked for in life, whatever you have, there’s going to be some attorney come along and take it — because you approved it, and you’re not the building code.”   
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Feng said his cleaner and gardener are willing to vouch for him before the ZBA, saying they rely on his support. He said he’s further paid $2,000 for plans of his building, a $500 application fee, and $200 to place legal ads.  
Feng has stopped offering the home on Airbnb through mid-March.  
However, if the ZBA approves Feng’s variance to allow short-term rentals, Hathaway said, that doesn’t mean Feng can immediately start admitting guests again. He said Feng’s next step would be to have a licensed architect or design professional draft what’s known as a Chapter 34 review of the building, and then he would have to bring the building up to code based on that type of occupancy determined by the architect. Hathaway said meeting code might require installing things like a fire alarm system, horns, strobes, and maybe even a sprinkler system — but he couldn’t be sure unless the variance was granted and the Chapter 34 review completed. 
“That’s another hurdle that will have to be addressed,” Hathaway said. 
But if Feng can get that variance and then bring the building up to code, then he’s good to go. 
Feng said he’s just trying to operate a business. “I think of this house as a way to bring in extra income to the state. You’re bringing guests from outside the state, you’re bringing tax income, you’re bringing business,” he said. “Think of the restaurants in Fall River. And I think Fall River needs this kind of tourism to generate income for the city. So I’m doing good deeds for the city, I believe.” 
In Airbnb’s article on “responsible hosting,” the company asks hosts to do things like “have a clearly marked fire escape route,” make sure the property “meets government safety guidelines for your area” such as the building code, and research local laws.  
It’s not clear how or if Airbnb ensures its hosts accomplish these things, or if it relies on the honor system.  
Hathaway said Airbnb “to my knowledge does not research the building and approve the building for this type of occupancy. They just say, ‘OK, we’ll accept your home’ from the owner. 
“I’ve had nobody say to me, through Airbnb or any organization that I’m aware of, ‘Is this approved in this neighborhood for this type of occupancy? Is this allowed use?’ I’ve had nobody do that,” he said. 
A search of Airbnb lists other available properties in Fall River. “As I catch them, I deal with them,” Hathaway said. 
Feng said he needs the ZBA variance to bring in Airbnb guests and support the property — otherwise, “I may have to sell this place.” 
“I can tell you right now, whoever buys this house would probably need to do something like I’m doing to manage this house,” Feng said. “I’m sure rich folks can buy the house, but who has a big family to move here? If anyone wants to buy the house, they can buy it — but they’re going to pay a lot to maintain the place.” 
Dan Medeiros can be reached at dmedeiros@heraldnews.com. Support local journalism by purchasing a digital or print subscription to The Herald News today.

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