A town law passed two years ago after months of contentious debate and packed public hearings has never been enforced, in spite of it being violated dozens of times.
At the Town Board’s Tuesday work session, members reviewed possible amendments to the law they hoped would make it viable, fairer to residents and enforceable.
Defined in the Town Code as “Vacation Rentals,” the law seeks to regulate short-term rentals (STRs). In the current law there is mandatory registration with the town by homeowners, limits on the length of time a place can be leased and how often, and penalties for not complying.
In two years, exactly five residents registered with the town as STRs, although a look at online ads for rentals on Shelter Island have shown over the years more than 50 times that number.
Before Tuesday’s meeting, Town Attorney Bob DeStefano Jr. told the Reporter that the way the original law was written was vague to the point it was “hard to figure out.”
Enforcing the law “was ineffective, because at the end of the day, these are criminal charges you have to bring against people,” Mr. DeStefano said. “If you don’t have the evidence to support it in court, it’s unethical to bring charges. We were never really able to gather the information we would need to prosecute it.”
Islanders, who rent or advertise to rent their properties for long or short terms would register the property with the town, declaring the name of the landlord, address of the property and the number of bedrooms. A rental registration number and license would be issued and would be valid for a year.
The new law would regulate corporate ownership of a property, including limited liability companies. There would also be required disclosure naming everyone involved in the group that is listed as the landlord.
The board hopes to solve one of the thorniest issues and subject to the fiercest debate two years ago — how to reconcile the long-time Island tradition of residents using STRs in the summer to help make ends meet for the rest of the year. Many residents were upset that they would be limited to the number of times they could rent out their properties on a short-term basis.
The new law has a provision — called the “Homesteaders Hardship Exemption” — that would allow people who claim a primary residence here, and meet income requirements, to be exempt from certain requirements. The draft law, Mr. DeStefano said, would allow a couple earning $82,300, or a family of three with an income of $139,000, to qualify to rent their properties up to six times per year for any period of time, short term or long term.
The board also reduced the amount of fines and jail time in the draft for non-compliance, agreeing that the proposed terms were too harsh. Originally, breaking the law more than three times could result in $10,000 in fines and up to six months incarceration.
Councilman Paul Shepherd noted, “Anyone in a cell 10 hours — it gets your attention.”
After the draft had been reviewed, Marcus Kaasik, who is running for a Town Board seat in November, said he disagreed with the whole process of crafting a law for STRs. He found it ridiculous, he said, “to put people in jail” over a rental law.
Mr. Kaasik said he was against the original law and “ I’m against this one.” He predicted if the new law is passed “there will be another lawsuit.”
He was referring to an action filed by six Island residents in August 2017 in the Eastern District of New York, protesting the town’s STR law. The case is ongoing.
Councilman Jim Colligan praised the homesteader’s exemption idea as a major change to help people “who are struggling.”
The councilman said that there was a concerted effort by some residents in the summers of 2017 and 2018 “not to register.” The result, he added, was “the law became absurd.”
Mr. Kaasik asked if there had been complaints about STR renters over the past two years. Mr. Shepherd and Mr. DeStefano said there had been many, but all were unofficial.
Mr. Kaasik said the Town Board had divided Islanders through an unworkable and unjust law and were about to do it again.
Mr. Colligan said the new law would result in “fairness” for people on both sides of the issue.