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Arguments aired on STRs at second public hearing

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO The scene in the school auditorium April 7 where the Town Board held a public hearing on proposed legislation to regulate short-term rentals.
BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO The scene in the school auditorium April 7 where the Town Board held a public hearing on proposed legislation to regulate short-term rentals.

The same arguments for and against regulating short-term rentals (STRs) were aired at a public hearing before the Town Board on Friday, April 7, similar to a January hearing as well as comments before the board for the last 18 months.

But a few differences emerged at the school auditorium with about 120 people in attendance. There was an address by an attorney hired by anti-regulation residents; several neighborhood association representatives came out in favor of regulations; an extended pitch was given by an executive from Airbnb on the benefits of STRs; a man left because he said he was at the wrong meeting; and somehow a connection was made between federal government investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and STRs on Shelter Island.

The Reporter was castigated by one speaker, Pamela Adler, for “improper” coverage of the issue.

About 35 speakers addressed the board, with the majority speaking against regulations. The board took no questions and made no comments. Most residents presented reasoned, civil arguments for their point of view. Larry Adler continued his demand that Councilman Jim Colligan recuse himself from voting, mainly because Mr. Colligan had asked residents to lobby his colleagues for restrictions.

Mr. Adler mentioned that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had recused himself from the Russian investigations. As he left the podium, Mr. Colligan told Mr. Adler he was out of line and would recuse himself or resign “when hell freezes over.”

Herb Loinig, owner of the Belle Crest Inn, asked why no questions were asked by the board.

Supervisor Jim Dougherty said the board was present to listen and Mr. Loinig left, protesting that the town officials were derelict in their duties and apparently he was at the wrong meeting.
Legislation to restrict STRs has been drafted and will be voted on by the board, probably sometime this month.

As it stands now, four members are in favor of the draft legislation that would, among other provisions, restrict STRs by requiring non-owner occupied residences to be registered and licensed by the town; abide by advertising restrictions; and no rental will be allowed more than once in any 14-day period.

Mr. Dougherty, the one dissenter on the board, has called for legislation that would allow a one-week rental period for STRs.

First brought to the board’s attention by residents complaining of noise and all-night partying by weekend renters, the board changed its reasoning to restrict the rentals because, as the legislation states, the board “finds that such transient rentals threaten the character and quality of life in neighborhoods in which they occur … Additionally, the Town Board has determined that a short-term rental, as being potentially more lucrative, will necessarily decrease the inventory of available long-term affordable rentals.”

Opponents disagree on each point, citing a lack of statistics to back up the assertions of the proposed legislation.

They also have hired an attorney, Brian Blaesser, from the Boston-based firm Robinson & Coles that has offices across the country, to make a legal case against the town’s proposal. Mr. Blaesser spoke for 10 minutes and then again for another two minutes.

In calm tones, Mr. Blaesser savaged the draft legislation on several fronts, noting that it is “irrational” and “makes no sense,” violates the First and Fourth amendments of the Constitution, has no factual basis and the board is acting on “anecdotal evidence” that “will lead to litigation.”

This is not news, since, as resident Jonathan Russo pointed out at the last public hearing, any position the board takes will most likely end up in court. Shelter Island is the only town on the East End with no restrictions on STRS. The others have minimum stay requirements and are being sued by landlord groups.

Mr. Blaesser was countered in a shorter presentation by attorney Robert Kohn, who presented himself as a Ram Island resident, noted that he doesn’t practice law in New York State, and is in the visiting scholar program of Columbia University Law School.

Mr. Kohn said Mr. Blaesser had employed “jargon” and that zoning laws are in place to protect homeowners from certain uses their neighbors impose on them. He said that the use of property is a privilege that is “not unlimited.”

Both sides said their positions were to keep Shelter Island the way it is, with anti-regulation people citing the need for income to meet mortgage and other payments so they can stay on the Island, and the pro-regulation people calling STRs merely a commercialization of Island neighborhoods.

The people calling for little or no restrictions mentioned that the economy of the Island would be in peril if restrictions were put on landlords renting to tourists.

Chuck Kraus, who said he’s been in the contracting business for 40 years, said the Island was going through “the worst economic downturn in my experience.” Mr. Kraus added that other owners were afraid for their businesses’ future viability “if this law goes into effect.”

Stella Lagudis, general manager of the Shelter Island Height Property Owners Corporation complimented the board for the work it’s done and urged it vote for legislation to restrict “commercial activity” in residential neighborhoods. When she noted that some landlords own multiple homes on the Island and some are owned by LLCs, she was met with boos, hisses and catcalls from some audience members.

Kathryn O’Hagan, a leader in the anti-regulation group, in a letter to the board released to the public by Robinson & Coles, reiterated that many people rely on STRs for income, noting that she and Julia Weisenberg’s “husbands are disabled and find it impossible to find work or be hired on the Island. For this reason, both of our husbands work on renting our homes seasonally …”

Resident Freidrich Seifts agreed the issue was about money, although not for struggling families, but rather for lucrative investments. He cited statistics that showed in 2016 Airbnb revenue on the Island was nearly $2 million on 1,500 rentals, a sales boost of almost 50 percent over 2015.

Ms. O’Hagan said the community was firmly in favor of limited restrictions, placing large jars of shells on the stage of the auditorium, with one jar holding 688 shells, she said, representing an online petition of people protesting restrictions. The other jar held 364 shells, she said, the number of those signing another petition calling for regulating STRs.