When Southold Town held its first public hearing on a proposed short-term rental law in early June, Town Supervisor Scott Russell declared that, like King Solomon, the town board had produced a result “that absolutely pleases no one.”
But a new draft, which defines prohibited short-term rentals as fewer than 14 days instead of fewer than seven days, was even less popular. At a more than three-hour-long Aug. 11 public hearing, many more people who rent their homes through online house sharing sites came forward to plead with the town for less stringent regulations.
The town had received 80 letters both for and against the proposal by the night of the meeting, nearly twice the number of letters received before the June hearing. Many in attendance were people who bought houses in Southold hoping to retire or move there full-time, but were renting them through internet booking services to help pay their bills while they are working toward living in Southold full-time.
Maryann Fleischman, who attended the first hearing, said she was baffled that the town had chosen to increase the number of nights for which a home could be rented.
“When I heard it was up to 14, I almost fell off my seat,” she said. “I’m a social worker with impeccable assessment skills. You all heard the people. I thought people said [they were concerned] not about time frame, but put the onus on the landlords [to make their renters behave].
“My assessment was seven was OK and what you decided was workable,” she added. “There was a small population of people that lived on a certain road in East Marion that were very vocal.”
Mary Emerson, who owns a house in Southold that she planned to live in before she needed to move so her son with special needs could attend school, said short-term rental services have helped her keep her house, where she plans to live again when her son’s needs are met.
She said she had initially rented year-round to a local woman who trashed the house and then let her fuel oil run out and sued her over the high electric bills she incurred when she switched to space heaters.
After finally having that tenant evicted, she said she listed the house for rent seasonally with local realtors with no results. It wasn’t until she put the house on Airbnb that she was able to find decent tenants.
She currently rents the house for one to three days, often in the winter, when she said Southold could use the economic boost from people who visit the town.
“I feel the boot of government on the back of my neck when i hear this,” she said. “This is a private property issue. This is intrusive government and special interests that are enforcing this on law-abiding citizens.”
There were some who were happy with the new proposal.
Mike Griffin of East Marion described the preponderance of short-term rentals as “a growing, unregulated Airbnb tsunami.” He said half the houses in his neighborhood are now rented short-term.
His wife, Grace Griffin, said 14 days is “an essential step” and asked the town to come up with a more comprehensive code that includes detailed fines for violating the town’s short-term rental laws.
Jane Cooper of Greenport, who worked in the mortgage business for many years and has been involved with affordable housing issues in Southold, said she thinks the law should be for 30 days.
“If they can’t afford to keep the house, they need to sell it. Put it back into the housing pool,” she said. “We don’t need to be subsidizing home ownership of people who can’t afford a home.”
She added that major mortgage companies like Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac have home ownership riders in their mortgages that new homeowners sign promising to live in their home and not rent it for the first year.
“They may be interested in seeing if it’s used as a defacto B&B or transient hotel,” she said.
Maryanne Fleischman, who grew up in Southold, didn’t take kindly to her remarks.
“I’m a local. I was born and raised here,” she said. “People where were you 40 years ago?”
She added that she counts on Airbnb to pay her mortgage.
“No, I won’t sell — give me a break, I was here with the Indians, OK?” she said. “Manhattan has come to the North Fork, and by that I mean Manhattan prices. The restaurants are Manhattan prices. The grocery store is Manhattan prices. I love Manhattan. I go there and have fun. But I come home and I rely on Airbnb.”
Cutchogue attorney Abigail Field represents several homeowners who rent their houses on Airbnb. She read several newspaper accounts from the 19th Century of the North Fork being overrun with tourists who stay for a short time.
“This is not an Airbnb issue. This has been going on for time immemorial,” she said. “You’re not going to stop them and this is political theater.”
Ms. Field pointed out that, in neighboring towns that hae 30-day minimum rental requirements, there are still dozens, if not hundreds of rentals available on online short-term rental sites.
“My clients hired me because they want to obey the law,” she said. “The nuisance houses, the ones who don’t care, the ones who want to create the Montauk madness everyone’s talking about, they will find a way.”
She added that if landlords are forced to rent the houses for longer terms, their tenants could sublet the house without their knowledge to fulfill the terms of the lease.
“The owner looses control when you require a minimum that is not where the market is,” she said. “That is more disturbing to neighbors because the owner looses control over the property.”
Marilyn Marks of Southold is part of a group called Homeowners for Smart Vacation Rental Legislation that recently took out a full-page ad in The Suffolk Times in support of short-term rentals.
“Our economy depends on them,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do.”
She pointed out that there are just 600 commercial lodging units on the North Fork, when there were tens of thousands of visitors to Greenport for the Tall Ships over the Fourth of July weekend. She added that, if visitors to the North Fork end up having to book a hotel room in Riverhead, they won’t spend their money in Southold Town.
“Hotels in Riverhead take away much more business than short-term vacation rentals,” she said, adding that people who use Airbnb are “overwhelmingly middle class families with children and pets.”
Mike Corso of Greenport said short-term rentals help people pay their property taxes.
“There are thousands of people out there who are not coming to these meetings saying ‘the people renting the house down the street, they’re so quiet. I have no problem with them,” he said.
“There are many places in the world where there is much heavier s*%t going on,” he added.
Linda Goldsmith of East Marion said Southold has “almost reached our saturation point.”
She said the town’s infrastructure isn’t adequate for all the tourists, and the beaches are overrun with visitors.
Patricia Walker of Southold said she’s confused by people who are frightened by seeing new people walking around their neighborhood. She said she often sees strangers on her block, who may be short-term renters.
“I don’t know these people but most are friendly,” she said. “People have been coming to the North Fork for the summer for generations.”
She said she bought her house her four years ago and plans to retire here.
“There are many problems with people who own homes and have parties,” she said. “I wouldn’t just rent my house to anybody. It is my home.”
Danielle Strauss, who lives in Massachusetts, said her father built their family home in Southold, and her family, which has left the area, has been renting the house in order to keep it in the family. She said her family tries to gather there whenever they can.
“My fear is my family will lose our home,” she said, choked with emotion. “This is so important for me to be here…. this is a community that I call home.”
“I wouldn’t mind registering my house with the town and paying for a permit and if a complaint comes to me, I can pass that on to the goofball that was in my house that I may not want to rent to again,” she said.
Deb Windsor, who rents her home in Orient, said that online rental services have been “the best thing that happened to my house.”
She said this summer she’s rented her house to a family from France with small children, two families who brought with them grandmothers who needed help walking and two families attending weddings.
“Do you want them to spend their money in Riverhead or do you want them to stay here?” she asked. “The only problem I had was I had to stop them with offers to buy the house.”
Joanna Lane of Cutchogue has been managing short-term vacation rentals since 2003, and she said she’s looked after hundreds of rentals and had zero complaints.
“This is how people now book their vacations worldwide. It’s not just Southold,” she said. “If you don’t allow this to continue, I think it will have a dramatic effect on the tourist economy in this town.
She added that the construction of hotels puts localized pressure on infrastructure, while “vacation rentals encourage people to have same patterns as people who live there.”
Richard Rabatin of Southold, who has a law degree but teaches guitar, said he didn’t see a reason for why the town changed the proposed code from one week to two.
“What’s the rationalization for that? I don’t see any,” he said, adding that he has read a white paper prepared for a real estate association that argued that laws limiting short-term rentals are violations of both the equal protection clause and the takings clause.
Realtor Marie Beninati provided statistics that show that just 5 percent of Southold’s houses are rented short-term, either through realtors or through rental websites.
“We’re not being overrun. It does not seem weekly rentals are gobbling up our homes,” she said. “Would you prefer hotels instead?”
Penny Rutter of Greenport, who said she lives across the street from a high-occupancy home, said she agrees with owners of legal hotels who wonder why owners of short-term renters aren’t paying taxes.
“My group doesn’t seem to have a lobbyist or attorney here,” she said.
Judith Ullman, who lives in Brooklyn but has a house by the wetlands in Southold, read a slew of letters from people who wanted to rent her house. Most had dogs, and many were families or couples looking for a quiet family getaway.
“I’m really concerned that this is being decided by emotion,” she said. “Base your decisions on the facts and not on your fears.”
Bill Edwards, a real estate agent and former town councilman, said he believes the two-week minimum “would largely destroy the primary market for seasonal rental on the North Fork,” and would also be a “major and costly incursion on homeowners’ property rights.”
The board closed the public hearing after more than three hours of comment.
“Obviously, the board is not voting tonight. We’ll revisit the issue in two weeks,” said Town Supervisor Scott Russell. “We’re going to take some time to go through all the comments.”