A new row of chairs had to be set up in the Town Hall meeting room on the afternoon of May 25 and it still wasn’t enough to seat the overflow crowd of residents who stood in the back and crowded the corridor.
The issue on the agenda at the Town Board’s meeting that brought out the crowd was a public hearing on a proposed amendment to the short-term rental (STR) law that was passed a year ago but is still a matter that inspires fierce debate and has divided the Island. There is a case in federal court against the town brought by several residents opposed to the law.
The audience at the May 25 meeting was vocal and energized and except for two instances were civil and interested in debate rather than ad hominem attacks, which characterized many meetings through the 16 months of discussion until the law was passed by a 4-1 vote in April 2017.
The proposed amendment in part made the language of the law clearer and resolved inconsistencies, but the main issue was a proposal to regulate signage. In the legislation on the books, lawn signs advertising that a residence is available for a short-term rental are banned.
The proposed change would ban illuminated signs, regulate their sizes and the distance they can be placed from streets. But the overwhelming majority of residents at the meeting insisted there be no signs at all.
After a long discussion, the board voted on the minor changes to the law and scrapped the issue of signs, leaving the legislation as it was written.
Beginning the discussion, Town Attorney Bob DeStefano asked the audience to address their concerns only to the amendment that was the focus of the hearing. Any other issues they had about STRs or anything else would be heard after the public hearing was closed, Mr. DeStefano said.
But it didn’t work out that way. Councilman Jim Colligan was the first to speak, giving a history of crafting the law and the compromises board members had made to come up with an agreeable solution. This seemed to open the way for the audience to air their grievances on the entire STR issue. The rest of the meeting consisted of calls by the town attorney and Supervisor Gary Gerth to restrict comments to the issue of signs.
After Mr. Colligan finished, Mr. Gerth, who campaigned for office opposing the STR law, said he disagreed with Mr. Colligan and would, in the next several weeks, come up with new legislation to allow some homeowners to rent their residences, when they are elsewhere, once every week, rather than once in a two-week time frame, which the current law allows.
Other board members seemed surprised at Mr. Gerth’s new gambit to rewrite the law.
Don Bindler read a letter from Tim Hogue, president of the Shelter Island Association, that seemed to be in agreement with many people in the meeting room. Mr. Hogue wrote that his association was against signs for “aesthetic considerations,” but also that “signage that indicates STR availability can have a potentially negative impact on the value of neighboring properties.”
Another reason to ban signs, Mr. Hogue wrote, is that most STRs are arranged through online sites, “so what is the point of the signs?”
Mr. DeStefano’s contention is that the town had to allow signage for STRs because it had lost a battle over banning “for sale” signs on properties. This was countered by Sue Hine, who noted that putting up an STR sign in a residentially zoned area was advertising a business at the location, whereas the business that puts up for sale signs for an individual house is not located on the property.
Mr. DeStefano responded that “the courts in this country have yet to rule whether these Airbnbs” are considered to be businesses in residential zones.
“If that’s the case,” Mr. Bindler said, “the board has within its jurisdiction to designate” STRs as businesses. “Since there’s been no determination, it’s within your power to make that a business.”
Two ugly moments came when Councilman Paul Shepherd and resident Barrie Silver were shouted down. Mr. Shepherd was trying to make a point about the difficulty of determining a time period that should be allowed for non-occupied residences to be rented, and compared it to the abortion debate.
“At what point does a rental,” Mr. Shepherd began and the room erupted in boos and catcalls. Mr. Shepherd responded by loudly saying, “This is the new America. Shout them down.”
Ms. Silver addressed the board and the audience by saying that she realized she was “a minority here but I hope you’ll hear me out … Let’s have a dialogue, let’s compromise,” but she too was shouted down before she could finish.
Supervisor Gerth used the gavel and told Ms. Silver to sit down.
After the board voted to scrap the sign provision, Stella Lagudis, general manager of the Heights Property Owners Corporation, asked why Mr. Gerth was considering changing the time limits on non-occupied STRs. “Now all of a sudden this comes out of the woodwork,” Ms. Lagudis said. “Why not put this off for the season, see how it goes and consider it?”
Mr. Gerth responded by saying that it was “a moral issue … the taking of property without due compensation and a denial of due process.”
The supervisor then mentioned that some people on the Island who use STRs to make ends meet are struggling and he had “a moral obligation to help people.”