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Codger’s Column: The E-word

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Should Shelter Island ever sink into the Sound, imagines Codger, it would be under the unimaginable weight of thousands of short-term rental (STR) attic rooms, basement apartments, accessory buildings owned by impecunious widows, striving young families and rapacious stealth hoteliers hosting sweet new couples, adorable young families and fraternity louts in neighborhoods unaware of their presence and half-crazed by the endless growls of their cars and motorcycles.

That was the fantasia that swirled in Codger’s brain following last week’s Town Board work session and last Saturday’s Republican meet-and-greet.

The STR issue is the specter haunting Shelter Island because, depending on whom you talk to, it’s about constitutional rights, the future of the Island, the quality of life and money.

Also, the solution involves either creating a fair law that angers everyone or else deciding there should be no law at all — in either case with or without enforcement.

Code enforcement has never been practiced rigorously here in Codger’s memory. It probably would be precedent-setting. (At a board meeting, Codger actually heard someone refer to the “P-word”). Politicians here often seem as afraid of the P-word, which means standing up for something new, as they are of the E-word — enforcement — which means risking the displeasure of voters and cops.

This conversation is just cranking up again. There will be a town hearing on STRs on May 3, and STRs will be a factor in the upcoming town elections, with at least three of the five candidates ready to dump the law.

Just how murky this is became clear to Codger at the recent board meeting where members suggested amendments to the “Vacation Rentals” law passed two years ago in a mad dash to pander to voters. The result has been a law violated often and never enforced. Reportedly, only five renters registered of the hundreds who advertised online last year.

Codger was particularly struck by the strenuous objection of Councilman Paul Shepherd to the law’s declaration that rentals be in compliance with Zoning Codes. He had no objection to compliance with state, county and town building and fire codes, which he maintained were about safety.

Zoning code violations, thought Codger, are frequently about illegal kitchens, misplaced structures, deals that could be brought into sunshine by real enforcement.

Gotcha!

The mere gathering of information would be precedent-setting. Just how many unregulated rentals are there and where are they clustered? How many complaints have there been? How critical is the situation in the Heights with large houses cheek by jowl and limited parking? Are there houses being built just for STR use?

Maybe Mr. Shepherd is right. Let sleeping plovers lie.

Also, better not to dig into the board’s odd social engineering. If this is a reasonable law to keep neighborhoods quiet and livable, why should it be amended so residents claiming financial hardship need not comply? The poorer can be noisier? Is that equality?

In search of answers, Codger turned up last Saturday at the Republican Party’s party, at the Osprey Lounge, a jolly affair that included the Bob DeStefanos, party chairman Gary Blados, Supervisor Gary Gerth, returning board candidate Marcus Kaasik — who came close to victory two years ago — and new candidate Julie Romanchuk Weisenberg, once a Democrat.

They were all patient, if wary, as Codger outlined his own preliminary STR opinion. He believes you should be able to rent a room or two in your house while you’re there with no regulations, no registration, nobody else’s business but yours. But he also thinks that your neighbors, who are not sharing in your profit, shouldn’t have to share in any disturbances your commerce causes. This is where the E-word comes in.

The police, who have seemed unenthusiastic, must be made available to respond to any complaints, including noise, excess traffic, suspicious characters, overcrowded houses.

Codger was mostly satisfied by the Republican response, which seemed tentatively positive. All agreed that the true life-and-death problem here is water quantity and quality, which is certainly impacted negatively by hit-and-run visitors.

Codger was particularly interested in a long-time second-home owner who will, for the first time, be renting his house this summer, he said. Under no circumstances, will he register. As a young man, he said, he marched against the war in Vietnam to protest government policies and change them, but he became more conservative as he aged, and now does not trust government to do anything right at all. How widespread is that feeling here?

He and Codger agreed to keep up. Codger, filled with bipartisan good feelings, refrained from asking if his new friend felt emboldened to not register by the memory of his 60s civil disobedience, a current promise of a pardon by President Trump, or because there is no E–word here.

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