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Dougherty wants to ‘heal the wounds’ over short-term rentals

REPORTER FILE PHOTO Supervisor Jim Dougherty.
REPORTER FILE PHOTO Supervisor Jim Dougherty.

After months of ugly confrontations over crafting short-term rental (STR) regulations, culminating in a Town Board work session a week ago that descended into an obnoxious shouting match, Supervisor Jim Dougherty said Tuesday he was seeking to “heal the wounds in our community a bit.”

His idea was to offer what he termed a compromise to his fellow board members. Mr. Dougherty is alone on the five-member board in his position that any regulations should include a seven-day minimum for vacation rentals rather than 14 days that his colleagues have endorsed.

Mr. Dougherty once again took the Reporter to task for printing that surrounding towns on the East End have 14-day minimum stays, but it is nonetheless true. The supervisor has termed the neighboring towns’ STR laws an example of “the failed communities around us “ and that not having a 14-day minimum was proof the Island is unique.

The debate about regulating STRs has been aired before the board since the spring of 2016. It was spurred by the proliferation of online rental sites, such as airbnb, which some say has turned parts of the Island into a destination for loud, all-weekend parties.

Those calling for more regulations fear that STRs, in the era of online bookings, will alter the character of Shelter Island as a family-friendly place.

They are countered by those who don’t want restrictions, who maintain that the complaints of noise and disruptive visitors have been overblown. They note that STRs allow families to remain on the Island by helping defray steep mortgages and related costs, and also boost the Island’s tourist economy.

At Tuesday’s work session, Mr. Dougherty stuck fast to his major disagreement with his colleagues, asking them again to consider that a one-week minimum stay be included in the proposed legislation, but backed off his opposition to having a code enforcement officer regulate compliance with the law.

Last week Mr. Dougherty compared code enforcement on the issue to the “Gestapo” that would make Shelter Island “a police state.” But Tuesday he said a current town employee could act as a part-time code enforcement officer who would act only on complaints.

The supervisor also called for a “non-binding” referendum on the issue to be put on November’s ballot “to help us to educate ourselves.”

Town Attorney Laury Dowd said that the law does not allow for “advisory referenda.” After Mr. Dougherty said he had spoken with “some people in Albany,” Ms. Dowd said she would speak with them if Mr. Dougherty provided the names, but said it was her understanding that referenda are reserved for issues such as bonding and other financial questions, or eliminating elected offices or altering the terms of the offices.

“The state has taken the position that we elect representatives to represent us and you can’t basically turn your responsibilities over to the voters via advisory referenda,” Ms. Dowd said.

Councilman Jim Colligan maintained that a 14-day minimum would “encourage people to rent for longer periods of time,” and Councilwoman Chris Lewis repeated her interpretation of the 14-day minimum as meaning that homeowners are allowed one rental within a two-week window, so people people can come for shorter stays within that time frame and the homeowner can charge them accordingly.

“Neighbors can stop looking for the revolving door because the revolving door isn’t there anymore,” Ms. Lewis said.

A two-week minimum will become accepted she said, adding that “things come along that become a great furor, then become a doable practice and becomes the way the community lives.’

All members of the board agreed to review the results of STR legislation in the fall, but Councilwoman Amber Brach-Williams said that since the law, as written, will only take effect on July 1, many arrangements will have already been signed and be honored.

“I don’t know if we’ll learn a lot” rom the summer of 2017, Ms. Brach-Williams said, since “there will be a rush for contracts to be in place before the law is enacted.”

“I’m going to learn a lot,” Mr. Dougherty said. “You may not.”

Councilman Paul Shepherd said he wanted to “turn down the heat.” He understood, Mr. Shepherd continued, that people renting their houses on a short-term basis is “a viable financial model” to ensure a house “can actually pay for itself in its entirety.” But the councilman said he worried about people buying multiple houses as a business and the Island becoming like “communities where people go but no one lives.”

Mr. Dougherty invoked the memory of his Irish immigrant grandfather, who gave him advice when he was a boy: “Jimmy, you got to help the next guy.” He said that STRs were lifelines to young families, allowing them to have a home on the Island. “This law deals a crushing blow to the next guy,’ Mr. Dougherty said.

But he didn’t gain any traction with his colleagues.

A public hearing — the second on STRs —is  scheduled for Friday, April 7 at the school auditorium.

In other business:  In order to qualify for a New York State grant by being named a “Clean Energy Community,” Shelter Island has to achieve  four “energy action” items, and is on pace to complete the requirements.

Green Options Advisory Committee Chairman Tim Purtell told the board Tuesday  that the grants are highly competitive with bids in by other municipalities in the region. The first community to qualify would receive $100,000, and other communities could receive as much as $50,000.

To comply, the town has filed a standardized application to streamline the approval process for installing solar energy in the community; put together an annual report of energy use in town-owned buildings; set up training for three town officials, including one from the Building Department and others involved in working on improving energy consumption; and plans to invest in alternative fuel vehicles and infrastructure.

On the last requirement the town is considering installing a charging station on the Island for electric vehicles. The cost would be about $15,000, according to Councilman Jim Colligan, but with the with a seperate state grant, it would cost the town about $3,000.

Mr. Colligan noted that there are 25 electric vehicles on the Island and most of the owners usually charge their vehicles at home, which is a lengthy process, while a public charging station is faster. Also, Mr. Colligan said, the station could be located on or near Bridge Street or on Route 114 near the IGA, which would allow visitors who are passing through to do some shopping or have a meal while their vehicles are being charged.