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No decision on proposed rental permit law after public hearing

The Southold Town Board held another public hearing Tuesday on proposed legislation that would require the owners of rental properties to obtain permits certifying their safety.

The latest iteration of the law mandates that owners of rental properties have a valid certificate of occupancy and show that the unit adheres to state fire prevention and building codes and has not been physically altered in any way without a valid building permit.

Owners could either allow the town building department to inspect their rental unit at no cost or hire their own home inspection personnel.

Residents, who have spoken out against the proposed rental law at past hearings, did so again Tuesday, raising concerns about the potential burdens it would place on property owners.

Town Board members say the proposal would protect the health of tenants.

“You should have a valid [certificate of occupancy] whether you’re renting or not,” said Councilwoman Jill Doherty in an email last week. “Over time, this will give us an idea of how many rentals are out there and what the future needs of the town are.”

Ms. Doherty had been leading the charge for rental permit regulation, citing safety concerns.

Some residents and real estate agents in the audience feel the proposed law is too restrictive.

“You are taking away rights when you do this,” said realtor Marie Beninati. “You’re creating a second class of people,” by requiring rental owners to obtain permits, she said.

Supervisor Scott Russell disagreed. “It doesn’t stop rentals,” he said.

Ms. Beninati wondered why other town agencies — like the police or fire department — can’t deal with unsafe properties. “They know who the offenders are. Do something about it,” she said.

Other speakers agreed, arguing that the majority of rental properties do not pose a threat to health or safety.

“We can’t easily just go into these places when we have just a simple verbal complaint,” Ms. Doherty said.

Cherry-picking enforcement would be wrong, Mr. Russell noted. “I would certainly hope any legislation we create is applied evenly throughout the entire town,” he said.

Other residents asked how the town would pay for the extra staff needed to process permits and perform inspections. Ms. Doherty said existing code enforcement officers would work with the building department and added that the town is also poised to hire a fire marshal who could assist with safety inspections.

The fire marshal position is included in the supervisor’s tentative 2019 budget and would begin June 1, 2019, if the rental law passes. Though the law itself would take effect immediately, it would not be enforced until Aug. 1, 2019, to give landlords time to apply for permits. Officials said permits would cost $100 annually, but that rates are set at each annual reorganizational board meeting and are not passed as part of the legislation itself.

Violators could face fines up to $5,000 for the first offense and up to $10,000 for a second offense.

Anne Murray of East Marion spoke in support of the proposed law and urged the board to vote. “The situation with rentals in the town, I think, is pretty out of control,” she said.

After the two-hour public hearing, the board did not put the measure to a vote.

Southold resident and attorney Patricia Moore suggested clarifying in the code that uses like residential care facilities, motels, hotels and B&Bs would not need to obtain rental permits. She also suggested that the board consider exempting affordable housing programs, including Section 8, from having to obtain permits.

“The federal government and [Housing and Urban Development] programs have their own inspection criteria,” she said. “If you are not trying to hurt affordable housing by this law, at least give credit or an exemption of this law for programs that already have a regulatory scheme.”

She also raised concerns about the law’s language regarding zoning.

“The way you’ve defined the permitting process, if you have a rental unit — regardless of the zoning district it’s in — you get a rental permit,” Ms. Moore said. But “dwellings” in residential zones are not the only ones who must get permits, the board agreed. “It’s based on use, not zoning,” Mr. Russell said.

Ms. Moore suggested the board clarify the code to say “dwelling unit” instead of “dwelling” to include apartments that may, for example, be located on commercial or mixed-use properties with second-floor apartments.

“ ‘Dwelling’ implies the house, but the dwelling unit may be a part of the house or some other building,” Ms. Moore said.

The rental permit proposal will remain on the agenda for two weeks, Mr. Russell said, for consideration by the board at its next meeting on Nov. 7.

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Photo caption: Southold resident and attorney Patricia Moore spoke at Tuesday’s public hearing. (Tara Smith photo)