Guest Spot: Two-week rental minimum is just too long

Some members of the Southold Town Board want to ban rentals of less than 14 days in residential neighborhoods and, on Tuesday, they took the first step by noticing a public hearing.

A 14-day minimum is bad policy, trampling private property rights, solving no problem and hurting local businesses. Rather than drive these tourists —and their dollars — to other communities, Southold should adopt effective regulations that address legitimate concerns.

Southold homeowners have long been free to rent their homes when they aren’t using them. This ability-to-rent property right has a long history; many here now came with their families for a week-long rental back when. Enacting a 14-day minimum would confiscate that longstanding private property right. At a Town Board meeting this spring, board member Jim Dinizio, recognizing that history, explained that he supports a one-week minimum stay. He reiterated that support Tuesday. Board member Jill Doherty also supports a seven-day period. Yet the board went forward with a 14-day minimum.

What problem is the board trying to solve? Three have been identified through public comments. One is a nuisance property, where the vacation rental landlord allows too many guests, who party loud and late. Everyone agrees such bad apples should be shut down — and they could be, simply through vigorous enforcement of current code or through a rental permit process that imposes specific and enforceable limits on vacation rental properties.

Local hotels have raised a second issue at a public hearing. They see rentals as unfair competition because the landlords do not have similar tax or regulatory burdens. These concerns could be addressed through a rental permit process and a rental permit fee. Although the code committee considered such an approach, the board decided it preferred a minimum stay requirement.

A third “problem” is the idea that these homes are commercial businesses bringing strangers into residential neighborhoods. This “problem” needs some unpacking.

For starters, renting for summer weekends is no more commercial than renting for summer weeks, which no one complained about over the decades. Nor are weekend rentals more commercial than year-round rentals: It’s still renting out property. Indeed, when the vacation rental property is the landlord’s own vacation home in the classic second homeowner way, as many short-term rentals are, the vacation rentals are arguably less “commercial” in nature.

Next, these “strangers” are the tourists who drive our economy. The tourist who stays in a vacation rental is no different from a tourist who stays in a B&B or hotel, though they often represent a different market. Vacation home renters are often families with kids and/or a dog, people who are not easily accommodated in hotels or B&Bs. But like hotel guests, they are here to enjoy and invest in Southold.

Moreover, if the problem is “strangers” in residential neighborhoods, then the proposed legislation is too limited. Not covered by the legislation, for example, are the tourist “strangers” who stay in guest bedrooms, also facilitated by AirBnB. Strictly speaking, the various contractors, cleaning services and landscapers are “strangers” in our neighborhoods, too.

Thus, this law isn’t addressing “strangers in our neighborhoods”; it’s addressing only one type: a tourist who rents a vacation home. Why? The underlying assumption must be that vacation rental owners don’t care about their properties or their community and are uniquely likely to foist some kind of bad element on the neighborhood. This prejudice doesn’t withstand scrutiny.

My clients, about a dozen vacation rental owners, have invested large sums of money in the renovation and upkeep of their homes because the properties are precisely that: their homes. They use the properties, and many hope to retire to them. They screen potential tenants aggressively because they want to protect their property, their relationships with their neighbors and all the things they love about Southold Town.

As to economic impact, my clients surveyed their previous guests and learned that each rental group of four to six people spent about $1,800 per visit on restaurants, vineyards, farm stands, art, gift shops and fishing. That $1,800 doesn’t include the cost of the house. Given that about 300 people offer vacation rentals, and most do more than one rental a year, the tourist dollar investment in Southold is easily in the millions.

Because 90 percent of the guests stayed for less than two weeks, a 14-day minimum would wipe out this investment in the local economy. Ending such rentals would also end the rental-enabled renovations, which total hundreds of thousands of dollars to local contractors, and the many jobs for cleaning and landscaping companies.

My clients support effective regulation and are willing to pay a permit fee that establishes parity with traditional hotels and B&Bs. Sadly, however, some Town Board members instead seem interested only in evicting a narrow but valuable slice of the tourists, er, “strangers” from our neighborhoods.

The author is an attorney with a private practice in Cutchogue. She is also the acting executive director of the North Fork Promotion Council and a member of the Southold Town Democratic Committee. However, she does not speak for either organization on this issue.