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Supervisor turns thumbs down on STR law — casts ‘no’ vote in 4-1 decision

COURTESY PHOTO Town Supervisor Gary Gerth.

In a surprise move, Supervisor Gary Gerth cast the lone “no” vote at the Friday evening Town Board meeting on the revised short-term rental (STR) law.

The resolution incorporating the amended law into the Town Code passed by a vote of 4-1.

The legislation has several provisions that were crafted and pushed by Mr. Gerth, including allowing some homeowners to rent their property on a short-term basis more liberally if they could prove economic hardship.

After months of public debate — highlighted by personal attacks, ugly accusations and contentious public meetings — on amending the original STR legislation passed in April 2017, Mr. Gerth said, before casting his vote, he was “a person who likes to compromise.”

But he voiced concerns that there are many Islanders who want to rent more frequently on a short-term basis than the 26 times a year allowed in the law because they “have real economic challenges.”

Mr. Gerth indicated that, for him, the Friday evening vote was not the end of the debate, but another way station in a process that could re-fuel the over-heated public dispute that has divided the Island like no other issue in recent memory.

“I hope and believe the next time around that I can sign on to this,” Mr. Gerth said, before voting against the legislation. “I want to be part of this.”

He agreed the law was necessary to prevent “commercialization of residential areas,” a strong argument made by residents who are for restricting STRs. But still he voted against the law, adding, “I’m going to retain the right to oversight and watching in terms of the enforcement” of the new regulations.

After the meeting, Mr. Gerth told the Reporter he was against “the over regulation” in the law and that he would look for an opportunity to “simplify” it.

The most significant part of the new law, and one Mr. Gerth, pushed hard at almost every meeting, seemed to solve the problem of Islanders who have to rent their places short-term to make ends meet. The legislation passed Friday allows homeowners to rent their properties once a week throughout the year if they can prove economic hardship. Other homeowners, who don’t meet the criteria for what is called the “Homesteader’s Hardship License,” are restricted to renting their unoccupied properties once in any 14-day period.

Individuals who apply for the hardship license must prove they have an annual income of $60,670 or less, or a couple making $103,900.

Mr. Gerth mentioned to the Reporter his concerns about prospective hardship applicants being required to show financial documents to the town to verify their income. That’s been a bone of contention for the anti-regulation people, who cite it as government overreach. The new law states that tax returns shown to the town can be redacted to reveal only “relevant information and won’t be kept by the town.”

Town Attorney Bob DeStefano Jr. told the Reporter before the meeting that information such as a person’s social security number may be redacted.

The public hearing in the school auditorium was sparsely attended, compared to others, and the discussion was civil. All of the previous arguments were aired in a debate that has been ongoing for three years. Those seeking no regulations brought up the economic necessity of renting short-term, especially during the summer months, and that registering landlords with the town was an infringement on their property rights.

They also made the argument again that STRs help the Island’s economy, by boosting businesses to cater to tourists.

In March, the major claims against the town in a lawsuit filed in federal court by several residents protesting the Island’s STR law were dismissed.

Those for the regulations maintained, again, at the June 14 meeting, that online companies such as Airbnb have changed the model of STRs, with some houses turning over renters on a frequent basis, leading to quiet neighborhoods becoming defacto noisy commercialized zones.

The argument that STRs hurt affordable housing was aired, since a landlord can rent on a short-term basis for much more money than renting on an annual basis, the pro regulation people said, thus shutting out those who work here but can’t find affordable rentals.

Chris DiOrio, who is member of the Community Housing Board, which is charged with finding affordable housing on the Island, mentioned people he knew who could only rent for nine months of the year and then were forced to leave for the summer because the landlord could make substantial income renting on a short-term basis from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

This was disputed by real estate professional and builder Janalyn Travis-Messer, who said she knew of no such cases.

Gerry Siller, a former member of the Community Housing Board and Democratic candidate for supervisor in November, said Mr. DiOrio, his former housing board colleague, was correct, noting that many landlords can rent out their places in the summer months and make what they would earn, or more, than renting to one person for the whole year.