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Democratic candidates come out against short-term rental law

Southold Town Democratic Committee candidates (from left) Debbie O'Kane, Damon Rallis and Albie De Kerillis.

The three Democratic candidates running for Southold Town Board issued a joint statement Wednesday night calling on the town to abandon its plans for a 14-night minimum stay requirement on short-term rentals, a law the candidates blasted as “unenforceable” and harmful to the local economy. 

Town supervisor candidate Damon Rallis and Town Board hopefuls Albie De Kerillis and Debbie O’Kane said the town should instead consider a short-term rental permit process with provisions for safety inspections, occupancy limits and payment of county taxes.

“For more than a year, the Southold Town Board has discussed legislation aimed at addressing short term rentals within the Town of Southold,” the statement reads. “Through various drafts and proposals, the Town Board has fallen short of addressing the true needs of our community. It is our opinion that the current draft proposal is not only unenforceable, but can have a negative impact on our local economy and the community at large.”

Southold Town’s original draft law called for a seven-night minimum stay requirement, but it was expanded to 14 nights following a public hearing in June. A hearing on the new proposal was held Tuesday night, with many short-term landlords and members of the community against the law turning up to voice their concerns during the nearly four-hour meeting.

The Town Board is likely to vote on the proposed law at its Aug. 25 meeting; it would not go into effect for another 90 days.

In their statement, the Democratic candidates said their own proposal would establish a registry for short-term rentals and place a limit on the number of permits issued. They added that the revenue generated from a short-term rental permit process could also be used to hire additional code enforcement staff or be placed into a dedicated fund for affordable housing initiatives.

“We believe that this is the type of proactive approach that town government should be taking when addressing the unique issues we face here in Southold Town,” the statement reads.

Town Supervisor Scott Russell defended the draft legislation, saying the process to create it had been lengthy and it was carefully considered.

“This has not been an easy issue for the Town Board,” Mr. Russell said. “Any action we might take to address this issue will have broad implications … We have carefully considered the long-term impact these commercial operations have on residential communities, good and bad,” he added.

In an email Thursday, Mr. Russell criticized the Democratic candidates for not voicing their concerns during the two short-term rental public hearings, and he urged the three candidates to attend the Aug. 25 meeting when the vote is expected to take place.

“We have had countless code committee meetings and two public hearings. Our opponents have yet to participate in any of those discussions,” Mr. Russell wrote.  “They now offer a position that is almost a word-for-word position already espoused by the attorney hired to represent owners of short-term rentals.”

Last month, the town’s code committee discussed how to identify properties that are in violation of the proposed rules. Under the law, any homes listed on sites like Airbnb.com would be presumed to be short-term rentals. That provision of the code would allow the town to be “proactive” in its enforcement, assistant town attorney Stephen Kiely said last month.  Fines for violators could range from $1,500 to $8,000, Mr. Kiely added.

The town has only one code enforcement officer currently employed, though the Town Board has discussed adding a second part-time code enforcement officer.

Asked to elaborate on why he believes the Town Board’s short-term rental plan is unenforceable, Mr. Rallis told The Suffolk Times the proposal relies too heavily on online evidence.

“It would seem that we will have code enforcement staff monitoring websites to make sure that owners are only offering their properties for the minimum stay,” he wrote in an email. “If there is online evidence that they are offering their property for a shorter length of time, we would prosecute them. So, we simply rely on online evidence? I don’t think that really solves any problems and there are so many ways to get around the minimum.

“The current [proposal] has no real enforcement arm,” Mr. Rallis added.

Mr. Russell called his opponent’s position a “cynical view.” He also did not agree with the assertion by Mr. Rallis and his running mates that their proposal is a more practical solution to the issue of short-term rentals.

“How would such a code, which requires regular verification of conditions such as payment of taxes, occupancy limits, annual inspections and renewals be any more enforceable than a code which simply no longer permits commercial uses being conducted in residential zones?” Mr. Russell asked. “Why would it be any more honored than the current draft code?”

Caption: Southold Town Democratic Committee candidates (from left) Debbie O’Kane, Damon Rallis and Albie De Kerillis. (Grant Parpan file photo.)

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