Codger Column: The geezer guard

PHOTO: IM FREE IMAGES/STOCK | Airbnbs on the Island? Codger is on the case
PHOTO: IM FREE IMAGES/STOCK | Airbnbs on the Island? Codger is on the case

Codger hates to admit that he was shocked — shocked! —  to read last month that the Island shelters scores of unlicensed bed-and-breakfasts, but he has been stewing about it ever since.

Now, when he patrols the Rock with his canine escort, they are alert to the clues of underground rooming houses — flocks of cars in a driveway, moony couples eating banana cake on a porch, drifty shoulder-to-shoulder bicyclists, the clink of ice in newly installed wet bars. The dog takes notes.

Not that Codger is necessarily railing as yet about these covert nestings — people should be able to hustle a buck so long as it doesn’t intrude on their neighbors’ quality of life  — but it certainly brings up a host of questions about property rights and wrongs, rules and their enforcement and, as always, what kind of Shelter Island do we want to live in.

Is it a crab-boiling, garlic-shucking dream of Sylvester Manor or the Jersey Shore vibe of Sunset Beach? And, of course, how do we feel about the looming shadow of Hamptonization?

A story in these pages declared that there were at least 77 entrants on for short-term Shelter Island rentals although only two were licensed. Building Department officials told the Reporter that they are “understaffed and unable to inspect all the violations of various laws they are told exist.” Now there’s a trunk to unpack: “laws they are told exist”?

Is there no written rulebook to look up?

Clandestine inns may not be a clear and present danger but the possibility that we can’t do anything about them is troubling. What else around here can’t be discovered, regulated, inspected and enforced? Why? No importance, interest, will or is it money? Do low taxes necessarily mean a lowered expectation of services?

What about more obvious violations, such as illegal construction, which is usually discovered — if at all — well after the fact? Knowing that forgiveness is easier to buy than permission, well-heeled owners (often as limited liability corporations) add rooms, patios, roofs that aren’t on the original plans. Sometimes it damages the environment.

The rare fine becomes a modest cost over-run. The only valid punishment is to tear down the offensive structure. (Codger also likes the idea of community service: Can wrong-doers be sent to clean out Codger’s basement? In orange jumpsuits with an osprey on the back?)

Codger suspects a political flabbiness encouraged by an assumption that Islanders won’t stand for any kind of government intervention in their lives (except for Medicare, Social Security, postal service, police protection, the Coast Guard, snow removal, FEMA … oh, well).

Codger wonders if it’s time for Islanders to intervene in their own lives. But how?

Here’s how. Codger thinks that there are dozens of his fellow codgers and crones who share his cranky hall monitor sensibility. We could pick up the slack of laws we are told exist. We’re old, fearless. Who better to keep tabs, cast cold eyes, watch the watch dogs (and wake them up when necessary)?

There are codgers and crones who have the expertise to read the budgets and parse the officials’ opaque statements and come up with a forensic accounting analysis. Are we really in good fiscal shape? Or have low taxes been a Faustian bargain to be paid off by our children with more bloated houses, more salted wells, more invasive species (vegetable as well as human), more corrupted wetlands.

Will we someday see Montauk-y weekend crowds outside, say, the Sundown Beach Motel, the Mashomack Spa, the Runway Harbor Inn?

Codger is not yet suggesting posting elderly border guards at the ferries, checking those without Shelter Island library cards for those migrant fashionistas, skinny foodies, money churners, actors and literary types who could be advance scouts for Shelhampton, but he is titillated by the idea of the Geezer Guard snooping around new construction and perhaps comparing it to the plans that have been filed with the understaffed Building Department.

Let Chris and Billy make the busts.

And Codger is positively warmed by the vision of creaky crocks sitting by the side of the road in beach chairs, aiming cameras and radar guns at passing speeders and cell phone abusers, then transmitting the results to our beloved  Facebook page. Let Chief Jimmy take the collars.
Licensing and enforcement is no job for us ancient ones, but we can start the process and even move it along with the occasional public shaming; we can name names and maybe picket in front of their houses until Julie Lane and Beverlea Walz show up.

A good start, old pals, to ring the bell and get those creaky toes wet, would be to assemble on October 25 at the Senior Center and then move as a gang to the school where the League of Women Voters of Shelter Island and the Shelter Island Association will hold their annual forum for candidates.

Be there. Act your age and ask some timeless questions. You’ve got nothing to lose but this Island.