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Anti-STR regs group hire big Boston-based law firm; attorney to speak at Friday’s public hearing under new rules

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO The Town Board held a public hearing on proposed short-term rental legislation in January and another is scheduled for Friday at 5 p.m. in the school auditorium. Pictured above at the previous meeting are, from left, Assistant Town Clerk Sharon Jacobs, Town Clerk Dorothy Ogar, Councilwoman Amber Brach-Williams, Councilman Jim Colligan, Supervisor Jim Dougherty, Councilman Paul Shepherd, Councilwoman Chris Lewis and Town Attorney Laury Dowd.

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO The Town Board held a public hearing on proposed short-term rental legislation in January and another is scheduled for Friday at 5 p.m. in the school auditorium. Pictured above at the previous meeting are, from left, Assistant Town Clerk Sharon Jacobs, Town Clerk Dorothy Ogar, Councilwoman Amber Brach-Williams, Councilman Jim Colligan, Supervisor Jim Dougherty, Councilman Paul Shepherd, Councilwoman Chris Lewis and Town Attorney Laury Dowd.

Residents protesting a proposed law to regulate short-term rentals (STRs) have hired a high-powered law firm to represent their side at a public hearing slated for April 7.

At Tuesday’s Town Board work session, Supervisor Jim Dougherty announced that those who hired Boston-based Robinson & Coles had requested that an attorney with the firm be allowed to speak for 12 minutes to make the case against certain parts of the proposed law.

Brian Blaesser, a partner in Robinson & Coles’ Boston office, is scheduled to speak.

Mr. Blaesser, reached on Wednesday, was asked who had hired him to speak and said, declining to provide names, that it was “a group of property owners.” He said he would include specifics in a letter he was preparing to send to the Town Board by late Thursday night.

The law firm has nine offices located in the northeast, Florida and California and represents the National Association of Realtors (NAR). They prepared a white paper for NAR on residential rentals.

Mr. Dougherty also announced that the anti-regulation group has invited a representative of Airbnb, who also wanted to speak for 12 minutes.

“I don’t solicit these things,” Mr. Dougherty said. “They come in over the transom.”

All board members agreed that a January 27 public hearing on the issue went smoothly, with a ground rule that each resident, after signing up to speak, was given three minutes to make their cases. After a discussion Tuesday, the board agreed that both sides of the issue will be granted two speakers with a 12-minute maximum each and the rest of speakers who have signed up will have three minutes each.

Shelter Island Association President Tim Hogue, who spoke at the public hearing in January in favor of regulations, questioned the timing of the announcement, receiving news only Tuesday afternoon about a change of ground rules for the Friday hearing.

Mr. Dougherty sent an email out at about 5 p.m. yesterday announcing the new rules, with one address to a group in favor of regulations.

The issue of STR regulations has been aired before the board and in the letters section of the Reporter since spring 2016, with arguments that the proliferation of online rental sites, such as airbnb, has made the Island a party destination for weekenders. Those calling for regulations soon shifted their argument from life style concerns to maintaining that without STR regulations, residential neighborhoods will become commercial zones, and once stable places to live have became transient hubs.

They are countered by those opposed to restrictions who say STRs allow families to remain here by helping defray steep mortgages and related costs and therefore preserve the character of the Island. In addition, local businesses will be hurt if STRs are regulated too severely, the group has said. They also argue that the government has no right to intrude on how people use their properties by imposing overreaching regulations.

The board, with the exception of Mr. Dougherty, has agreed so far with the proposed law that allows for a two-week minimum for STRs, along with licensing, registering with the town and other qualifications for non-owner occupied rentals. The law states that an owner can only rent their unoccupied property once in a 14- day period, so in essence they could rent their house out for 26 weekends a year.

There was some push back at the work session to the idea of allowing an attorney and an Airbnb executive to speak for a total of 24 minutes. Craig Wood, a town assessor, said from the audience, “I’ll be there to hear what my fellow citizens have to say.”

Councilwoman Chris Lewis said, “I fear when a person tells me that they’re bringing legal input from another place — not even a local attorney — that says heavy hitter to me and that says we’re not laying ball with the same people anymore.”

But Councilwoman Amber Brach-Williams found nothing wrong with a group designating speakers to voice their views, and the board, including Ms. Lewis, agreed.

Mr. Dougherty mentioned that allowing the attorney to speak meant, “If this is a pre-litigation thing, we look stronger” rather than denying him and saying, “shut up and sit down.”

The meeting is scheduled for Friday, April 7 at 5 p.m. in the school auditorium.

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