Woodstock sole assessor Marc Plate spread good news about his town’s prospects while also warning of problems to come during a finely-detailed presentation before the Woodstock comprehensive plan committee Wednesday, July 12.
For the good news, Plate spoke about the town’s taxes per resident being Ulster County’s lowest, showed the town’s highway bills as equally low, and spoke at some length about the values being added to the town by its surge in attractiveness to tourists and new residents in recent years.
In terms of challenges, Plate reiterated what others have spoken about lately: traffic and parking problems; the town’s loss of mortgage tax income due to the numbers of Brooklynites purchasing homes with cash; a loss of long-term rentals to the Airbnb phenomenon, and shifts to the local equalization rate that are getting fueled by short term rentals which raise the value of local homes not seen until after they sell.
For a comp plan, there shouldn’t be any trepidation about imaging the best for the town, Plate said. “Financially, Woodstock is very stable.”
The assessor’s Powerpoint presentation showed Woodstock at the head of the county in house sales figures, pointing out discrepancies with the figures from the Behar report that the comp plan committee and town has been using in recent years, saying it was based on what are definitely old statistics at this point. Similarly, Plate said that, despite all the talk about the town’s aging population, the median was lower than it had previously looked to be once one included the part time and newer residents coming to Woodstock.
Moving back to the idea of challenges, the assessor spoke about the things he and his staff see on regular field trips around town. He mentioned accessory studios turned into profitable Airbnb rentals, approved decks expanding into apartments, and so on.
“Surreptitiously, we get more rentals and the phenomenon is so widespread that it’s now catching up to us,” Plate told the comp plan committee. “More short term rentals diminish the numbers of full time rentals available and squeezes out our youth. The zoning code isn’t specific enough to apply to such a situation.”
He pointed out how he started noticing the ways in which homes were selling for more than they were assessed, and then found it was because their attributes as short term online rentals weren’t getting recognized on the town’s tax rolls.
“That ends up changing the rates for everybody,” Plate said. “The solution is to regulate and capitalize on them. We have more than 300, from what I can see, averaging about $200 a night. That’s $16,000 income for owners, and a $10.8 million gross revenue town-wide.”
He pointed out how a proposed county bed tax applied to such rentals, plus registration fees, would go a long way to helping alleviate parking problems in town exacerbated by the average 14,200 cars that pass through Woodstock each weekend. Then he showed slides to demonstrate how a 60-car parking capacity at the Comeau Property could be expanded to more than 250 spaces. And better parking signage, something “more universal,” could similarly help direct people to what is available, and not just what seems most convenient.
Later, Plate talked about how he did a report several years ago about what he was seeing from local home sales. Charting where buyers were from, he noticed people between 30 and 40 coming up from Brooklyn zipcodes. The figures added up to 38 percent of home sales, he added, and has grown since then, although he’s not tabulated exact statistics yet.
Other things Plate touched on included the types of experiences Woodstock’s new visitors — including tourists, weekenders, and part-timers looking to make a more permanent move — are looking for, based on where they’re coming from. They have their own ideas of what the town symbolizes, and is. They want walkability, and outdoor experiences one can get to easily.
He said the crowds at Big and Little Deep, or along the Millstream, could be relieved by reopening the swimming beach at Wilson State Park, which seems to have moved past its years of “bad geese.” Affordable housing could be built on town property on Woodstock’s eastern fringe, closer to Route 28.
“Woodstock has so much going for it and we’re so wealthy, we’re in good shape,” Plate reiterated, noting the town’s volunteerism, its scenery and water resources, its attraction to outsiders.
As for getting the town’s short term rentals under control, he said it’s something he and Woodstock code enforcement officer Ellen Casciaro try to keep on top of, bringing those who build without permits back into the system wherever possible. And if not?
“I find them and punish them,” said Casciaro before going into her own, abbreviated report that focused on “zombie houses” and slumlords as the town’s biggest problem, alongside some cumbersome older laws.
When asked how many properties were in each category, she noted about 15 unkempt homes owned by banks, that she needs to remind about upkeep, and eight “slum houses involving the same characters each and every time.”
Later, Plate said those figures seemed high to him, but he trusted Casciaro’s observations.
Regarding short-term rentals, the code enforcement officer said she tried to stay on top of things by sending out letters to owners of accessory apartments each year. She said she got 85 percent replies, but when pushed for further details from the comp plan committee, noted that the Airbnb phenomenon, in her eyes, had “people going all willy-nilly and helter skelter” then commented how she’s too busy to worry the phenomenon’s details for now. Instead, she focused on the lack of updated maps to work with, and budgeting difficulties each year.
Plate later spoke, with a laugh, about how his own daughter moved to a Brooklyn apartment vacated by a family who moved to Woodstock.
“I think we need to focus on taking care of the tourist flow in town to make it sustainable and manageable,” he added. “Then again, we said things were bad in 1969…eventually there’ll be another recession and it’ll all even out again.”