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Vote on rental law postponed after real estate agents weigh in

Based on concerns expressed during a public hearing Tuesday night, Southold Town Board members decided to hold off on approving a local law that would require the owners of rental properties to obtain town permits.

If passed, the proposed law would require the owner of such properties to follow a permit application procedure, adhere to property maintenance guidelines and allow proper inspections of the property. It would also subject them to fines for violations. The law would not be enforced until Oct. 1, in order to give everyone time to apply for the permit.

Attorney Pat Moore argued that this law would affect the rental community tremendously because some houses that were updated or changed without permission before the town had strict laws would have to go through the lengthy process of legalizing them. 

“I want to also address the impact to our administrative cost and to our tax base,” Ms. Moore said. She compared Southold to the towns of Riverhead and Southampton, which have multiple code enforcers. Southold has 3.5 code enforcement positions.

Town attorney Bill Duffy said that making people legalize illegal renovations is not a good argument against a permit requirement. Supervisor Scott Russell added that while Riverhead and Southampton may have more code enforcement staff, they also have much larger parcel counts, so Southold actually has more administrators per parcel.

Another concern was the requirement that rental properties have a survey and a certificate of occupancy. Mr. Duffy said that if those documents are already in place, there would be no need to complete another survey.

“The survey thing, to be honest, is presenting a concern to me right now,” Mr. Russell said. “We don’t have a very good inventory of surveys in town government.”

Some residents favored the proposed law. Anne Murray of East Marion said it was “a long time coming.”

“I think it’s a very, very good step the town is taking,” she said.

Thomas McCarthy of Southold, one of many real estate agents in the audience, expressed disappointment that no one had reached out the real estate community to get its opinions on the law, since they will be heavily affected by the legislation.

Mr. Russell said the meetings were posted in the local newspaper and on the town website, and there had been news articles about it.

“We do everything we can to try and get the public into the process,” Mr. Russell said. “The problem is that it doesn’t seem to engage anybody until the process is already in the public hearing phase.”

Councilman William Ruland added that these conversations need to take place during the planning phase, before the law is drafted. The idea was first formed in November in response to local fire departments’ concerns about encountering unexpected floor plans when entering homes during emergencies.

“The concern I’m sure you’re trying to address, which is overcrowding, I think for the most part that’s the minority,” Ms. Moore said to the board. “If there are one in a thousand that are that type of situation, you have the other thousand you’re going to impact.”

Mr. Russell acknowledged that the local law needs more thought and planning, but said enforcement of rental laws is necessary to ensure the safety of the community.

“Every resident in Southold Town is a stakeholder of this code,” Mr. Russell said. “There are absentee landlords that are putting people’s lives at risk. How do you go after the few bad actors if you don’t hold everyone to the same standard?”

The board decided to keep the public hearing open to written comment for two more weeks, after which it will meet again with code enforcement again to discuss the law in greater detail.

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Photo caption: Attorney Pat Moore spoke out during the hearing Tuesday. (Rachel Siford photo)