Pictured Above: Properties currently being listed by VRBO in Southold Town.

After more than a month of debate on how to better regulate short-term rentals, the Southold Town Board decided this week to put several proposed changes designed to allow for better enforcement of the town code up for public hearing on Aug. 29.

Southold banned rentals of less than 14 days in 2015, after a contentious debate that pitted many owners of short-term rentals and real estate agents against people who live in the neighborhoods where many of these properties are being used as party houses. Despite the changes, illegal short-term rentals are the biggest source of code complaints received by the town , said Town Supervisor Scott Russell as the board discussed the proposed changes at its July 5 work session.

The changes to the rental permit code up for public hearing would require 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 with the rental permit code 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.

Currently, many people who rent their properties short-term in Southold — there are about 700 such rentals listed — have been getting around the town code by advertising the rental price for 14 days even if the renters are just staying for the weekend, and then leaving the property vacant for the second weekend, said board members at the July 5 work session.

A second proposed amendment, to the zoning code, would prohibit the renting of “transient rental amenities,” which would be 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.”

Mr. Russell has said the second proposed change is in response to apps like Swimply, which let people rent their private swimming pools by the hour.

Both public hearings will be held at the board’s Tuesday, Aug. 29 meeting at 4:30 p.m.

The board stopped short of Mr. Russell’s suggestion that the minimum rental duration be raised to 30 days, and has not yet agreed on a proposal to address an ongoing issue with whether short-term rentals should be allowed in commercial districts. The current code prohibits short term rentals, with the exception of those provided by hotels and bed and breakfasts permitted by the town, in commercial zones. An attempt to change this code about 18 months ago was rescinded due to a lack of proper public notice, and was never revisited.

Fishers Island, which doesn’t have any hotels or bed and breakfasts, is exempt from the short-term rental prohibition.

In a town with few hotels with astronomical in-season rates, some board members expressed reticence at the July 5 work session to further restrict rentals that are now allowing families who might not otherwise be able to afford hotel rates to vacation here.

“A lot of people who are affected by this are families and people with small children,” said Councilwoman Sarah Nappa. “Thirty days pushes this in a direction that I don’t think this community wants to go. I don’t think anyone in this room could raise their hand and say they’ve ever taken a 30-day vacation. We are pushing this into a situation where only people who can take 30 days off will have a 30-day rental. I think we need to look at a different way to regulate this.”

She suggested potentially allowing short-term rental of accessory apartments at properties that are owner-occupied.

Councilman Greg Doroski said he thought increasing the limit to 30 days “could make people say, ‘hey, it’s not worth it. I’m going to make it a long-term rental.'”

“If it turns into long-term rentals, that supports a more vibrant community,” he added. “I do personally like the idea of 30 days. Riverhead is doing 30 days and it’s not becoming a high-end community that’s pushing everyone out.”

Mr. Russell suggested the effect of further limiting short-term rentals in residential zones could be mitigated by allowing them in commercial zones.

“We don’t want to give up on them. We just want to do it in an area that’s more appropriate,” he said. “They are commercially zoned properties.”

Mr. Doroski said if short term rentals are allowed in commercial zones, he’d like to see them allowed only on the second floor.

“I think we would be eliminating a lot of commercial space,” he said. “I really like the idea of mixed use development, with businesses on the first floor and residential on the second. People are there. It’s safer, and people keep it clean because it’s their neighborhood.”

Mr. Russell said there are many private houses in commercial zoning districts that are not necessarily being used for business purposes now.

“I don’t want to assume it’s just second floor apartments,” he said of potential short-term rentals in commercial zones.

“I can’t unhear the concerns of people desperately looking for someplace to rent near where they grew up,” said Councilman Brian Mealy. “We have an opportunity to make space for everyone, and the ability to adjust this…. We watch it and see how it works and if we have to update it.”

“We need more agility in our thought,” he added. “We want to have our cake and eat it too, but we need to become smarter in how we’re doing this. You don’t know what you don’t know. We want people to say ‘the North Fork is nice,’ but we don’t want it to be so enjoyed that it’s not enjoyable anymore.”

“But I think the framework is good. The bones are good,” he said, urging the board to hear from the public on the proposed changes.

“We’re in a dangerous place, for people to come in here, and spend maybe two weeks,” said Ms. Nappa. “With what things cost now, you can go to Europe and so many other places. Tourism is way down, and it affects all businesses out here.”

“If tourism is down now, it’s obviously not doing its job,” said Mr. Russell of the current code. “We need to find the niche to attract the right demographic, and we’re obviously not getting it done with two weeks.”

“Let’s get this done and turn our attention to the commercial side of the equation,” he added. “We’re going to be here three years from now talking about the same thing. We adopted two-week rentals in 2015, and it’s the biggest source of complaints in all of Southold Town.”

The two proposals up for public hearing are on pages 32 through 36 of this document.

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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