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Town Board continues to listen to short-term rental debate

AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO The Town Board in work session Tuesday. From left, Councilman Paul Shepherd, Deputy Supervisor Chris Lewis, Councilman Jim Colligan and Councilwoman Mary Dudley.
AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO The Town Board in work session Tuesday. From left, Councilman Paul Shepherd, Deputy Supervisor Chris Lewis, Councilman Jim Colligan and Councilwoman Mary Dudley. Supervisor Jim Dougherty was absent.

The Town Board’s business was once again consumed by the issue of airbnbs —unregulated short term rentals booked on the Internet — at the regular Town Board meeting Friday, July 15 and at Tuesday’s work session.

The proliferation of the unregulated rentals has sparked outrage from some residents, who complain about Island residences turned into so-called “party houses” nearly every weekend with drunken and loutish behavior disturbing the peace and changing the character of their neighborhoods.

That has been countered by residents telling the board they use airbnbs to rent to respectable families and groups, which is a time-honored Island tradition, and need the summer rental incomes to be able to remain in their homes. The short-term rentals also help the over-all Island economy during the summer tourist season.

When, or if, the board will take action is an open question.

Even though the issue first surfaced in November when then Building Permits Coordinator Mary Wilson noted that there were 77 listings on airbnb.com on the Island — there are now many more — and that the lion’s share were breaking the law by providing rooms for guests with no licensing or inspections.

Building Department Clerk Mary Ellen McGayhey said at the time that she received complaints from residents who said their neighbors were renting out their house on weekends for raucous parties.

At the time, Supervisor Jim Dougherty said the proliferation of airbnbs was a subject for the board to investigate.

But even with draft legislation targeting the issue presented weeks ago to the board by Town Attorney Laury Dowd, there is still no public hearing scheduled and, members agree, there will be no action taken this summer.

Ms. Dowd’s draft calls for, among other regulations, the licensing of all rental houses; a minimum of two week stays; the house must be owner-occupied; limits on the number of bedrooms and guests depending on the zone in which the house is located; and parking restrictions.

No official public hearing doesn’t mean the public hasn’t been heard. At Tuesday’s work session, those for and against short term rentals addressed the board.

As the board discussed the issue, Councilman Paul Shepherd said he had a hard time sympathizing with people who are second home owners on the Island, but are renting them out on a short term basis.

Councilman Jim Colligan agreed, noting the board had received correspondence from someone who said when she and her husband purchased a second home here “we had to rent it in order to own it.”

Mr. Colligan said “if that lady was in front of me” he’d ask “what did you buy it for? That’s not fair. Maybe you go someplace else and pull that, but Shelter Island?”

Jennifer Lederman, from the audience, said she was the writer of the letter and asked to speak.

Ms. Lederman, who was joined by her husband Jeff, said she was offended that her home had been referred to as a “party house” or a “flophouse” by speakers at past meetings and in articles and the letters section of the Reporter. [Editors note: No Reporter article ever identified the Lederman’s home as a party house or a flophouse.]

They prized their home on Sylvan Road, the Lederman’s maintained, keeping it in pristine condition and were strict about who they rented to, which is mostly families. They screened each renter thoroughly.

Ms. Lederman referred to their home “as our baby,” and Mr. Lederman said they sought families for short-term rentals, noting there were many places on the Island that advertised that their accommodations were not suitable for children.

“We’re the voice of the families,” Ms. Lederman said.

When Councilman Paul Shepherd asked where they thought the complaints about their place stemmed from, Ms. Lederman said they had rented to a couple that had invited other people over, which was against the rules she had set out.

They had a four-adult maximum and an age minimum for renters, Ms. Lederman said, and turned away 90 percent of the requests to rent.

Renting to families on a short-term basis helped “stimulate the economy, Mr. Lederman said.

An unidentified woman in the audience said that rather than simulating the economy, it was hurting legitimate, regulated hotels.

“And if that is your baby,” she added, “you’re leaving it with strangers, so I don’t buy it. Or you’re a very bad parent.”

Councilman Paul Shepherd asked that the debate not revert to the personal, and Deputy Supervisor Chris Lewis called for calm.

As they had at the July 15 regular board meeting, Phil DiOrio and Friedrich Seifts, both of Sylvan Road, addressed the board Tuesday. Mr. DiOrio called for a two-week minimum stay for rentals, and Mr. Seifts said the board should act on commercial ventures operating in a residential zone.

“It is pure unfettered commercial activity in a residential neighborhood using a residential home,” Mr. Seifts said at the July 15 meeting.

Mr. DiOrio, on July 15, said that the argument that short-term rentals stimulated the economy was bogus, since longer rentals do exactly the same thing.

He called for licensing, noting that the Island is the only municipality on the East End with no adequate legislation on the issue.

He said the “soul” of Shelter Island was at stake.

“What’s going to happen if people find out that the economic model [of short term rentals] works?” Mr. D’Orio said. “People are going to buy houses just to do this thing. If you do nothing, rest assured we will have more[short term rentals]. Do you want to live on an Island that is dominated by them?”

In other business: The board passed a resolution to put a proposition on the November 8 ballot asking voters to accept or reject extending the Community Preservation Fund (CPF) — a real estate transfer tax that has been used to purchase open space — until 2050. The second part of the proposition would ask voters to accept or reject authorizing the town to take up to 20 percent of CPF money collected to use for clean water projects.