Towns continue to weigh regulation of short-term rentals

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

For those intrigued by what some are calling the Airbnb age, look no further than the nearby Rondout Valley for a concise view of discourse on the subject.

Last week, the town of Rochester finally held a long-awaited meeting about possible changes to its town law to regulate the short-term rental phenomenon, which supervisor Carl Chipman described in terms of 287 Airbnb listings in his town and “600 to 700 altogether in the county.” Crowds came out to listen as their code enforcement officer, Gerry Davis, told horror stories about “high school kids from New Jersey who were busted up in Woodstock…They had 52 bottles and four kegs and they were all under age” and concerns involving fire safety, adherence to building codes and property maintenance.

Davis suggested that “the proper way is to register every short-term rental like this and issue permits.” One requirement would be a local contact or manager living within 30 to 60 minutes of the property in question. Property maintenance should be up to New York State codes. Taxes should be paid. Others brought up septic systems, and the number of bedrooms per entrance/egress from a home.


But then town residents who’d actually stayed in Airbnbs, or served as the international company’s “hosts,” spoke up to describe how Airbnb actually works, with a strict ratings system, meaning any and all poorly maintained properties will be quickly delisted and misbehaving guests will not be able to rent. As well as how the company itself will handle tax payments to counties and towns, when asked, just as they handle taxes for those same hosts.

One woman spoke of having both long term and short-term rentals and never having a problem, pointing the care she takes choosing tenants. Another pointed out how their visitors went out to local restaurants, visited local attractions, and spent in the area. “This is actually a plus to the community,” said one host, while others pointed out how they worked to show off Rochester and the Rondout Valley while also sprucing up their rental properties to better attract business.

People said that annual inspections seemed a bit much, along with proposed bans on tent rentals, or requirements that local Airbnbs have signage visible from local roads. They noted how it seemed redundant that the county was addressing the same issues.

Later, however, we checked in with Ulster County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach about his longstanding proposal, built out of conversations with top Airbnb brass, to fold the company’s local rentals into the county’s bed tax protocols and raise some money for everyone.

“The Legislature is dragging its feet while other counties are enjoying the proceeds from the bed tax through a  voluntary collection agreement (VCA) with Airbnb,” Auerbach noted of the proposal he first put forth nearly two years ago, held up by Legislature Chairman Ken Ronk because he wasn’t sure about the oft-used deal’s legality and wanted the state senate sign-off on it first. “If Ronk and company are still waiting for Albany we will see another year go by and be out over $500,000 since the offer was made by Airbnb.”


Slow approach

In Woodstock, supervisor Bill McKenna talked this week of a fire call he went on as a Woodstock FD volunteer last week, and how he got a visit from an appreciative Airbnb landlord the following day.

“His attitude was, ‘Make me permanent, make me pay taxes,'” McKenna said. “We’ve had conversations with attorneys at Airbnb who have been courteous and helpful in helping us regulate what we have. Like any company, though, they’d rather deal with 62 counties than thousands of villages and towns regarding taxes.”

Short-term rentals are a big topic in Woodstock. Town assessor Mark Plate estimates that the annual revenue from such rentals tops $10 million.

Town councilman and Woodstock historian Richard Heppner sits on a new town committee dedicated solely to short-term rentals in Woodstock, and was in on the recent calls with Airbnb attorneys that the supervisor referenced. He said his committee has met a couple of times to date and “is just getting going.” It, like the town of Rochester, is working to move beyond scary stories to something substantive that works with the region’s changing tourism-based economy.

“Airbnb has been very helpful in getting our heads around what’s involved,” Heppner said. “They’ve been giving us places to look at, such as Portland Maine…Every town is different and some towns go crazy, banning short-term rentals altogether, while others get very detailed with the numbers of cars allowed and the exact wording of applications.”

Heppner added that the key to Woodstock’s approach, from the get-go, has been that “we’re not looking to destroy anything; whatever we do, it’s going to take a while.” He added that no one was looking to be making any formal proposals to the town board until well into 2018.

As for the history of the matter, and whether he saw any parallels with earlier Woodstock eras involving boarding houses, Heppner was quick to note how property regulations weren’t a concern then. Moreover, he said, “I think the town was glad to get people coming, putting people up in barns, above garages. That allowed for the artists to come.”

McKenna noted how whatever would come, from the town or county, “I’m only too happy to have any kinds of fees and taxes we can implement.”

And back in Rochester last week, supervisor Chipman ended his town’s raucous discussion of new tourism by suggesting that he saw the whole phenomenon as, “a viable way for some people to hold onto their homes.”

Talk about change.

There are 3 comments

  1. Steven L Fornal

    Short term/transient rentals is the operative phrase used in planning and zoning circles to describe the phenomenon of AirBnb (and a whole host of other “sister entities” like, FlipKey, HomeAway, VRBO, HouseTrip, VayStays, VacayHero, Roomorama and 29 plus others with just a cursory google search). The Town of Rochester has proposed a proactive local code to ALLOW short term/transient rentals throughout the township. Under Zoning Law, if a use is not listed, it is not allowed. That’s the law! The Code Enforcement Officer would be within his rights to close down all current short term/transient rentals operating illegally within the town. The Town Board chose NOT to do that!

    As for the statement re AirBnb “hosts” who spoke up to “describe how Airbnb actually works, with a strict ratings system, meaning any and all poorly maintained properties will be quickly delisted and misbehaving guests will not be able to rent,” note that AirBnB has no immediate remedy for rowdy guests creating problems for an entire neighborhood over the course of a weekend or longer. The proffered code would require a manager to be close at hand to stop any problems that occur. Should that fail, a town constable could be dispatched to quell the situation immediately. In fact, Airbnb expressly dismisses ANY responsibility whatsoever for immediate solution to such problems and/or liability concerns. As for said rating system regulating guests? Completely irrelevant for the kinds of short term/transient rental problems that have actually occurred in Ulster County as documented by the Daily Freeman. Also, how is this quote, directly from AirBnb’s website supposed to comfort the town re problem renters: “Any references to a Member being ‘verified’ (or similar language) only indicate that the Member has completed a relevant verification or identification process and nothing else. Any such description is not an endorsement, certification or guarantee by Airbnb about any Member, including of the Member’s identity or background or whether the Member is trustworthy, safe or suitable.”

    The statement, “People said that annual inspections seemed a bit much, along with proposed bans on tent rentals, or requirements that local Airbnbs have signage visible from local roads. They noted how it seemed redundant that the county was addressing the same issues,” contains inaccuracies. There will only be one inspection for safety (unless significant changes are made thereafter); the stated cost to be $75. The county is only seeking to address the Bed Tax issue (all current B ‘n’ Bs, motels, hotels, etc must now pay a 2 percent tax on short-term rental proceeds while AirBnBs and sister entities pay nothing).

    As for those elements of the proposed code that can be considered self-regulating (like lawn mowing, snow and garbage removal, maintenance, etc), a suggestion has been made to the Town Board that they be eliminated from the code. So, too as regards visual signage. Also suggested is adding a provision for allowing short term/transient rentals currently operating to continue contingent upon filing an application for permit within 62 days of the code passage. The tent clause will be clarified. All of these suggestions came out of the Public Hearing and the code will be better for these changes.

    It seems every single speaker that evening brought up the fact that short term/transient rentals bring tourists into the area to spend their money. However, they each went on to accuse the Town Board of “taking this away from us” which is 180 degrees from what actually is transpiring. As stated above, in Zoning law an unlisted use is a use that’s not allowed. The Town Board is attempting to allow AirBnB and its sister entities to operate.

    The premise for the code offering, a point made by the Town Supervisor, Town Code Enforcement Officer, Town Planning Board chairman and myself, a member of the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals and Zoning Review Committee (ZRC) is the FACT that the town faces possible liability concerns due to a lack of action to assure the health and safety of proposed short term/transient rentals with public access. After all we live in an increasingly litigious society.

    Also brought up repeatedly at the Public Hearing was a charge that houses already have Certificates of Occupancy which assures the house has satisfied building code so why do they need further inspection. FACT: Many, if not most, houses built earlier than the modern building code (Uniform Building & Fire Code, 1984) would not pass a safety inspection. The difference resides in the fact that going to short term/transient rental status means a commercial aspect has been added, one that will be allowing the public into the home. That becomes the purview of local government to assure safety; thus, the liability angle. In addition, C of O’s consider the number of bedrooms which sizes the septic tanks required. With short term/transient rentals using “sleeping rooms” in order to maximize the number of renters, septic tanks may easily become overburdened with the result being raw sewage seeping into neighboring properties’ water sources. Ascertaining the actual occupation rate is both legitimate and necessary. Also, with such “sleeping rooms” added, an inspection is required to assure that new rooms have adequate exits in case of fire.

    As for the components of the actual code offered, AirBnb on its Host Responsibilities page states the need for “Contact Info”, “Fire Prevention” (which includes the statement: “Ensure you have a functioning smoke alarm and carbon monoxide detector, and that your property meets government safety guidelines for your area (e.g., International Building Code)”, “Occupancy: Establish safe occupancy limits – your local government may have guidelines”, “Building Rules” to be clearly posted, “Parking rules” and “House Rules.”

    The above are the major elements of the Town’s code proposal. The permit issued for a successful inspection will serve as an invaluable document to certify that hosts have met the responsibilities that AirBnb and its sister entities require.

    As to the repeated statements made by the crowd that they’re bringing tourists into town to visit the fine businesses here and spend their money; that they were doing the town a service so why is the Town Board attempting “take from us” the ability to bring people here?

    The Town Board and the various Zoning Code Committees have, over the span of 10 years, created a code that protects residential uses of residential properties even as it encourages business growth. Because of the code development agricultural districts were created, processes were streamlined, building incentives were included. As a DIRECT result of these additions, we have seen a burst of new businesses and the expansion of older ones. I mention just a few: Arrowood Brewery. West Wind Cidery. Long Seasons Farm. Woodstock Farm Sanctuary. Crested Hen Event Space. Saunderskill expansion. Kelder Farms expansions of use. etc etc etc The code has sought to preserve Prime Farmland even as it protects the renowned Shawangunk Mountain viewshed giving The Scenic Byway its spectacular views.

    These locations and businesses BRING IN THE TOURISTS, give them somewhere to go, see and experience. To imply again and again that the town doesn’t understand the need for tourism– after all that has gone into code development so that it actually delivers tangible results in real time –is to be completely obtuse.

    What is being proposed is minimally intrusive, inexpensive and necessary.

  2. Bernie M.

    According to the public acquisitions list,there are only two boarding houses in Rochester, one on mill hook and one on samsonville. We appreciate you business

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