After months of intense debate and discussion, the Southold Town Board passed a law Tuesday that sets a minimum of 14 nights for rentals of privately owned homes.
The law defines short-term rentals for the first time as residential homes that are rented out for less than 14 nights at a time — frequently via home-sharing websites such as Airbnb and Home Away. The measure passed by a 4-1 vote, with all but Councilwoman Jill Doherty voting in favor.
“Does the town really want to start offering up residential zoning in the name of commerce and tourism?” asked Supervisor Scott Russell. “I think, at the end of the day, you have to make decisions about tourism versus quality of life.”
Fishers Island Justice Louisa Evans was absent for the vote as she needed to catch a ferry back to the island.
Fines for violators range from $1,500 to $8,000, according to the legislation. The law is likely to take effect sometime in October, Mr. Russell said.
“We’re going to have to be realistic here that reservations have [already] been made,” Mr. Russell said while explaining the decision. “The town isn’t looking to swing a heavy hammer here.”
The Town Board had originally considered setting a seven-night minimum stay, but later revised the draft.
Ms. Doherty told The Suffolk Times Wednesday that she preferred to define short-term rentals as stays of less than seven nights, a proposition that was voted down by the board a month ago. Ms. Doherty said she wants to see more enforcement of existing laws before adding new code. She noted that the law passed Tuesday merely defines “transient rentals” and doesn’t set up a registry or application process — something she’d be in favor of discussing further.
“The main thing we can do is not make new codes but enforce the codes we have,” she said.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the Town Board approved advertising to hire a part-time code enforcement officer who would help apply the new code definition. As part of the law, any homeowner who lists property for rent on a website like Airbnb.com will be presumed to be violating the code. The homeowner will then be given a chance to rebut that presumption.
Mr. Russell said the town will also create an “email hotline” residents can use to file complaints, which will be forwarded to the town attorney’s office.
The new law was passed after two lengthy public hearings this summer. Even before the vote was held, many residents attending Tuesday’s meeting spoke on the issue — at times passionately.
Some speakers called for stricter enforcement, urging the Town Board to take its time and come down hard on short-term rentals.
“What you have here are a group of people who are nudging you,” said Kerry Navarra of Mattituck. “They’re chipping away at the fabric of this community. You don’t have to agree to their push … Don’t be fooled by this nudge.”
The renters, he said, “have no respect for the Town of Southold.”
That sentiment was echoed by Joseph Marchese of Peconic, who called the rental properties “Motel 6s” and demanded the town take whatever steps necessary to stop renters.
“Find a way to get it done, whether it’s legal or not,” he said. “We have to tie up their money.”
The feeling wasn’t shared by Mr. Russell. He said that despite the heated rhetoric, the vast majority of short-term landlords aren’t bad people.
“They’re just as deeply committed to the community,” he said. “We’re not talking about bad guys, we’re talking about fundamental land use.”
But other speakers asked for less stringent law and said the new regulations would damage the economy, be hard to enforce and hurt the renting homeowners.
Salem Katsh of Orient said the Town Board didn’t need to make a decision now on short-term rentals.
“There’s no urgency,” he said. “The season is almost over.”
Mr. Katsh claimed the law was inspired by “raw xenophobia,” “anger” and “conspiracy theories” against outsiders coming to Southold Town.
“It is a witch hunt,” he said.
After the vote, some second-home owners who rent their houses for short periods said the legislation will make it difficult for them to afford to stay.
Yehudit Moch of Brooklyn, who purchased a property on the North Fork with Judith Ullman in 2009 that they rent out, said, “We thought it was reasonable to say one rental a week … Having short-term rentals helps keep healthy middle-class vacationers.”
Ms. Ullman said the new law will likely cut off too much of the single-weekend business in the off-season.
“There just isn’t the desire, the demand,” she said. “Maybe once a year, someone will ask for two weeks.”
Ms. Ullman said the couple will try to stick it out another year. But they will now contact a realtor and potentially sell their home.
Abigail Field, an attorney who was representing a group of home renters and who advocated for a short-term rental application process instead of a minimum stay, declined to immediately comment.
Photo credit: Paul Squire