Pictured Above: The website airdna.co showed 230 active short term rentals in the zip code for Southold hamlet alone in early September, not including other hamlets throughout the township of Southold.

The Southold Town Board voted unanimously to approve several changes designed to make the town’s eight-year-old short-term rental code more enforceable on Aug. 29.

Town Supervisor Scott Russell, who has been advocating to no avail for months that the board change the code to require rentals to be at least 30 days instead of the current 14 day minimum, said the vote was his “most disappointing yes in years.”

“The law isn’t working. We didn’t get it right. It’s very difficult to enforce. What’s the difference between 14 and 30 days? The less you allow for turnover, the easier it is to enforce,” said Mr. Russell, who is not seeking re-election this fall after 18 years as town supervisor. “I think what we’re doing tonight is completely insufficient for what we need to do.”

The changes approved Aug. 29 include requiring that anyone advertising a rental property must list their town-issued rental permit number in online, print and leaflet advertisements for the rental. Penalties for failure to comply would also be increased to a minimum of $3,000 per offense, with a maximum of “$10,000 or the 14 day published rental rate, whichever is higher,” according to the draft changes. The current penalties range from $500 to $5,000. 

Town Attorney Paul DeChance said that in many cases there currently isn’t a rental permit number displayed on listings “because there isn’t a permit.”

Here are the town’s rental permit rules, which require the rental property have a valid certificate of occupancy and be inspected to ensure it meets fire, electrical, sanitary and other building codes.

The board also approved a change to prohibit the renting of “transient rental amenities,” defined as “the rental of any parcel amenity, accessory use or yard area, including pools, barns (except for storage only purposes), sports courts or waterway access, not in conjunction with a valid dwelling or dwelling unit rental occupancy permit,” in an attempt to stop property owners from using apps like Swimply that let people rent their private swimming pools by the hour.

The board heard a smattering of public comment both for and against the code change before taking its vote.

Elizabeth Brittman of Southold, who lives on West Creek at the end of Goose Creek, said that three of her adjacent backyard properties are now short-term rentals, and she played a recording for the board of visitors to one of the properties playing a loud drinking game.

“Living next to this, we’re losing our community,” she said. “Every weekend, I have new neighbors. People need to know they’re in a residential area.”

“I didn’t buy my home in 1997 to live next to a hotel,” she said. “I’m disheartened there aren’t more people here. There’s a lot of talk in the community about what’s going on with short-term rentals.”

Wayne Robinson said a lot of Airbnb hosts “try to keep their guests to some kind of reasonable behavior. Everything does not have to be a party… Undoubtably there are some bad eggs, but not everybody is a bad egg.”

Steven Schnee of Southold said he believed prohibiting rentals of less than 30 days would alleviate Ms. Brittman’s problem, but said that he believes homeowners should have a right to rent their homes.

Referring to the town’s recently drafted Community Housing Plan, which named short-term rentals as a factor in the town’s lack of affordable housing, Mr. Schnee said he believes “there has to be a way to solve [the affordable housing crisis] other than depriving a homeowner of the right to rent their own home.”

“I don’t see 14 days. I see weekends,” said Henry Waslow of Southold. “I would like to see enforcement and statistics after these new laws get put into place. I don’t want to see words. I want to see some action. I understand that you’re hiring some new code enforcement officers.”

“We’re trying to,” said Town Councilwoman Jill Doherty. There have been very few applicants recently for code enforcement jobs on the North Fork.

Mr. Russell responded at length to some of the comments.

“Why don’t you have the right to rent your home? You didn’t buy the right to have a commercial operation. You bought the right to use it as a home,” he said. “Thirty days or longer has always been viewed as a residential use. As to balancing the commercial and residential part of it, there shouldn’t be a commercial part of it…. We have hundreds and hundreds of Airbnbs in town and very few are even making a modest attempt to comply…. The reality is we have to recognize we are enforcing rules that still allow for a commercial use. It’s getting out of hand.”

Mr. Russell then quoted a frequent town board critic, Benja Schwartz, who had once told the town board that “when you’re renting out your home, you’re renting out the community.”

“If you want to rent for a shorter period of time, we have a zone for that, the commercial zone,” he added. “I encourage people to invest there.”

Mr. Russell said he doesn’t know how big an impact short-term rentals are having on affordable housing, but “I know it will have zero impact if we don’t make changes. We need to make changes. The affordable housing committee was willing to take a stand and take credit for it. That group made it clear about Airbnbs being a deleterious impact on year-round rentals. You don’t discard that, which is exactly what this boad is doing. We have an obligation to the community to restore rental zoning to its proper use.”

Councilman Greg Doroski said there is some debate on the board about whether to draft a local law increasing the minimum rental term but that the current proposal “is adding a mechanism to make it more enforceable.”

“If we don’t have the mechanism to control 14 days, we can’t control 30,” said Councilwoman Jill Doherty. “We’re all agreeing that Airbnbs are an extreme hardship in this town. We will continue this discussion.”

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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