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Airing it out over short-term rental regulations

SCOTT FEIERSTEIN PHOTO The Town Board at Friday’s public hearing in the school auditorium on proposed amendments to the short-term rental law. From left, Town Attorney Bob DeStefano Jr., Councilman Albert Dickson, Councilman Paul Shepherd, Deputy Supervisor Amber Brach-Williams, Supervisor Gary Gerth, Councilman Jim Colligan, Town Clerk Dorothy Ogar and Deputy Town Clerk Sharon Jacobs.

An issue that many long-time Islanders have said is the most divisive in memory returned, front and center, Friday evening at a Town Board public hearing held in the school auditorium.

The rhetoric from residents discussing the town’s short-term rental (STR) law, and proposals to amend it, was toned down from previous meetings over the past two years.

At the beginning of Friday’s hearing, Deputy Supervisor Amber Brach-Williams called for civility and, later, Supervisor Gary Gerth was quick to interrupt a speaker who was naming names in a personal attack.

Twenty-one speakers went to the podium —15 against the law and six in favor.

Although the hearing was not as bitter as those in the past, still “draconian” was used often to describe the law and proposed penalties for failing to comply.

One speaker said it was “tyranny,” and the board was putting “jackboots on our throats.”

There were dire warnings that passage of the rental law would make Shelter Island “like Berlin in the 1930s.”

One speaker said, if the law is enforced as written, a sign at the ferries should say: “Welcome to the People’s Republic of Shelter Island.”

Other speakers insisted that the law was fair and reasoned and would help preserve the Island as a quiet and peaceful place, thwarting corporations from turning neighborhoods into hotel destinations.

The law requires that a mandatory registration form — with no charge — be filed with the town by homeowners for all rentals; limits on the length of time a place can be leased and how often; and penalties for not complying.

An amendment to the law would regulate corporate ownership of a property, including limited liability companies, requiring a disclosure naming everyone involved in the group that is listed as the landlord.

The board also hopes to solve one of the thorniest issues and the subject of the fiercest debate — 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 are upset that they’re limited to the number of times they can 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,  be exempt from certain regulations.

The draft law 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.

Kathryn Klenawicus — who is also known by her surname, O’Hagan — told the board her husband is severely disabled and his only income is through rental of his property. She added that she is “against all regulations regarding my property,” and that “Shelter Island is speaking to you and this year is an election year.”

Dawn Fotopulos followed, saying that the law and the proposed amendments were “no different than taking property through physical seizure.”

Ms. Fotopulos is one of six women who filed suit in August 2017 in federal court accusing the town of violating their rights under federal, state and local laws. In a recent judgment, United States District Judge LaShann DeArcy Hall ruled that the STR law passed by the town two years ago is legal in all major respects. The womens’ attorney said “we are weighing our options, including an appeal.”

Peter Humphrey said the law was passed after “a couple of incidents” of people complaining about noise coming from an STR. His view was echoed by many, who said that the police could handle noise complaints without the imposition of onerous legislation on property owners.

Others against the legislation cited the financial hit merchants and others involved in the tourist business would take if the law stayed on the books.

But Chris DiOrio made the point that the Island has a second homeowner-based economy with some tourism, and that Islanders are more dependent on second homeownership than tourism.

Many people working as carpenters and in other trades, he said, as well as the landscaping business, were being priced out of the long term-rental market because of STRs.

Airbnb and other online booking companies were praised and also came under fire. Levi Logstrom, who described himself as working in the “vacation rental management industry,” helping homeowners rent on airbnb and other online booking agencies, said, “times have changed” and “online rentals are the method of choice.”

Along with others, Mr. Logstrom said that vacation rentals these days were more likely to be for a weekend or just a few days, and not for a week or two weeks.

Lily Hoffman, a retired urban sociology professor in the SUNY system, noting that there is an affordable housing “crisis” on the Island, said “there’s not a place in the world where airbnb has not decreased the stock of long-term rental housing.”

Real Estate professional Janalyn Travis-Messer began to read a letter from two women she said have lived on the Island for more than 50 years. “The Island isn’t broken, so why are Paul Shepherd and Jim Colligan trying to fix it?” she read. When the letter went on to refer to Mr. Colligan’s house in Silver Beach, Mr. Gerth interrupted to ask that Ms. Travis-Messer refrain from naming names.

She concluded the letter, which said: “We don’t need outsiders telling us how to live” and “if you want to take away other’s rights … put up your own for-sale signs and move to a place where there are your kind of people.”

Stella Lagudis, general manager of the Heights Property Owners Corporation, said her organization supports the law and the proposed amendments and asked the board to “please vote affirmatively.”

Tim Hogue, president of the Shelter Island Association echoed that sentiment.

Mr. Hogue added that one reason the pro-regulation people were outnumbered at the hearing was that “people are afraid to speak in favor of the regulations because of the vitriol and downright nastiness” coming from the other side.

He added that the law and its amendments are “the most lenient of all towns on the East End” and urged the board to “shut out the noise, do the right thing” and pass the regulations.

The board will tweak the language of the law slightly, Town Attorney Bob DeStefano said, for clarity, and another public hearing might be forthcoming.

And, on the flash-point issue of how the town will enforce the law, Mr. Gerth said that is still to be worked out.

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