Shelter Island Reporter Editorial: A meeting to remember

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO The public meeting room of Town Hall.

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO The public meeting room of Town Hall.

Something extraordinary happened on Friday, May 25. People showed up in large numbers at Town Hall for a public hearing and changed the minds of the Town Board.

It was an uncommon event because people these days mostly leave their representatives alone. We live in an age of virtual reality that has extended into our politics with semi-literate tweets substituting for policy statements, social media weaponized to bombard voters with scurrilous falsehoods and eligible voters, too fed up or bored, refusing to exercise their franchise.

Not so last Friday when an overflow audience of residents in the Town Hall meeting room made it known that an addition to the short-term rental (STR) law allowing lawn signs touting the property as an STR site would be a non-starter.

For the most part, the residents who showed up were civil, arguing points with the town attorney and board members. But there were some unfortunate instances of incivility and boorishness, when a speaker and a councilman were shouted down, bringing memories of past STR public hearings, when cursing, table pounding and vulgarity dressed up as dialogue prevailed.

The board, after listening to the residents, agreed with them to scrap the sign provision and passed language changes in the law that brings more clarity to the legislation without substantial changes to the ordinance.

One disturbing moment in the meeting came near the end when Supervisor Gary Gerth, who ran for office opposed to the STR law, said that he considered it “a moral issue” to provide exceptions to the legislation, allowing some people to rent their premises one time in a one-week period rather than one time in a two-week period.

This was a startling statement. Describing a vacation rental law as a moral issue is far-fetched, but worse, it’s divisive. If someone is opposed to Mr. Gerth’s ideas on STRs, how should they be characterized? Lacking a moral sense?

He made it known again that he disagrees with the current law and noted his reasons, which coincide almost identically with a suit filed in federal court by residents who oppose the STR legislation.

That’s fine. We look forward to further explanations of his point of view as he makes a case. But let’s leave a debate over moral issues, when it comes to reasonable people discussing differences of opinion, out of the Town Hall meeting room.