Codger’s column: Game of homes

If it wasn’t happening right here and now, thinks Codger, this short-term rental (STR) controversy, including the public hearing two weeks ago and the snitty responses ever since, might be viewed as grand entertainment, a Game of Homes without the sex and blood, at least not yet.

What fun, a civil war — call it Hicks vs. Slicks — in which the cash-strapped salts of the earth who need to let strangers sleep in their houses are being denied their chance to survive by haughty gentry who demand the bucolic calm they don’t enjoy at their other homes.

But the entertainment is spoiled for Codger because the actors in this drama are real people with real problems, who live down the street. Some are friends. Some really are scraping by and without the extra income from renting their homes a dozen weekends a season they couldn’t afford to stay. They don’t want to have to do this forever, but they need to do it right now. They should be able to.

Meanwhile, Codger has just as much sympathy for those who feel jangled and unsafe by the constant hustle-and-flow of renters and their cars on their street.

The deal here has been peace and quiet, unlocked doors, knowing the folks around you. That seems to be worth fighting for, too.

If there’s common ground, it should be something like this: It’s up to town government to find a way for residents to make money from their property without impinging on their neighbors’ quality of life. That’s pretty simple and about as hardcore as Codger feels right now.

Late to the game, but trying hard, the Town Board has crafted an ungainly compromise that gets little love but seems to Codger a product of hard work and thoughtfulness. Once passed, it will need constant re-evaluation and adjusting.

Will it work right away? Certainly not if there is no real enforcement and if people continue to refuse to register as renters.

Now what’s that all about, this uncivil disobedience? Some people cite privacy as their reason: What business is it of government how they apply their Fourteenth Amendment property rights? Codger thinks that’s nonsense. It’s about money grubbing. Registration invites IRS exposure.

You think all the profits from those stealth STRs are being declared? What are discounts for cash about? Too many of the so-called libertarians who accept Medicare, Social Security and other government programs think paying taxes is for chumps, not Trumps.

Codger isn’t hardcore, but plenty of the usual suspects are. There are some “Close the Ferry Gate, I’m Aboard” partisans who would ban all STRs except for hotels and bed-and-breakfasts that pay fees and taxes. They fear the effect of intrusive corporations like Airbnb.

If there are an estimated 150 unregistered STR houses operating now, how many more will be built or renovated to catch the run-off from surrounding towns with more restrictive rules? What’s the critical mass of STR units to make all of Shelter Island as cheesy as Sunset Beach?

The “Rent Free or Die!” partisans who want no regulations have been issuing dire warnings that the spying climates of communism and fascism will settle here if neighbors are encouraged to count transient guests and report them to the town hall monitors. The difference between snitches and whistleblowers can be very subjective.

Codger has had the impression that many full-time residents who work and send their kids to school here have not been as vocal as the hard-core partisans.

Codger wonders if they feel intimidated and cyber-bullied by the usual suspects or are keeping their heads down until November, an election that is shaping up as a referendum.

Several of them have said they believe that STR’s are nowhere near as essential to the Island’s economy as second homes and their servicing. They cite the taxes second homeowners pay and the number of year-rounders in landscaping and construction.

While Codger still thinks the most important Island issues concern water use and quality, the STR controversy with its passionate personalities will continue to dominate our attention. That’s only more reason to find out if they are spreading misinformation.

The board needs to gather more data: How many dedicated STR houses are there? Has there been an increase? Do they have an impact on affordable housing and year-round rentals? If they are commercial enterprises, how can they be allowed to operate in residential zones? How can corporate STR houses and the high-end (up to a rumored $25,000 per weekend) rental mansions be controlled?

Once a new law is in place, the board should appoint a citizens’ oversight committee to advise it on monitoring compliance and enforcement, without which all of this is only entertainment, and a limited series at that.