The Woodstock Town Board heard several recommendations on handling the increasing popularity of short-term rentals as it attempts to strike a balance between homeowners’ right to earn extra income and changing the community’s character and quality of life.
“We’re not here to get one side pitted against the other,” Councilman Richard Heppner said as he presented the short-term rental committee’s recommendations. He noted that it is all part of the shared economy which includes ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft, which came to the area over the summer.
“The genie’s out of the bottle,” he said.
Benefits noted by the committee include there ability to earn extra income, increased foot traffic in local businesses, a boost to tourism, and the availability of affordable, comfortable accommodations for visitors.
On the flip side, drawbacks include noise, traffic, problems with trash, speeding, no scrutiny over fire and safety standards and an unfair advantage over traditional bed-and-breakfasts. Also, an apparently dwindling supply of affordable longer term rental properties.
Heppner noted a majority of short-term rental proprietors already fall within one of two existing zoning classifications. The zoning law defines a bed-and-breakfast establishment as a place where a resident host is in a private single-family home and has no more than five rooms for rent. A bed-and-breakfast home is one that has a resident host with no more than two rooms for rent.
Both are legal, provided the owner pays an annual $50 permit fee and submits to an annual fire and safety inspection. A short-term rental is defined as an arrangement that is less than 30 days. What is not legal is when an entire property is rented short-term without the owner present.
The town has a decision similar to other communities, which have responded in a variety of ways ranging from doing nothing to a full ban, to some sort of regulation or limiting the total number of short-term rentals.
The committee recommended an application on which the homeowner must disclose whether or not the rental will be owner-occupied. The applicant would be required to designate an emergency contact person available 24 hours a day if the owner is not present.
Owners who have gone through the necessary steps and paid applicable fees would be given a registration number that must be posted on all advertising for the rental, a step that was suggested by Airbnb’s counsel as a way of identifying legal proprietors.
A required handout given to all renters could include emergency numbers, an escape plan, explain noise regulations, outline parking rules, note any restrictions on large events, explain the leash law and prohibit fireworks.
Any registered owner could be subject to loss of permit after three verified violations and would need to reapply after a year.
In addition to the $50 yearly fee in place for a bed-and-breakfast, the committee proposed $100 per room for a non-occupied two-bedroom rental, $150 per room for three bedrooms and $200 per room for five or more bedrooms.
The additional fees, should the Town Board vote to allow non owner-occupied rentals, would help with the extra cost of enforcement, Heppner said.
Changes in the zoning law may be necessary depending on what the board decides.
“I feel very strongly we need public input on this on both sides of the aisle,” Heppner said. “My personal hope is to get this done before the next season.”
Town Board open to some absentee rentals
Councilwoman Laura Ricci said she is in favor of permitting short-term rentals and making sure there is ample enforcement.
“Permit, regulate and enforce, regardless of owner-occupied or non-occupied,” Councilwoman Cathy Magarelli said. “If we allow people who don’t live here, that’s really going to change the complexion of the community,” she added. “I’m up for a middle ground.”
Councilman Jay Wenk said any action has to include consideration for parking, traffic and protection of the town water supply.
“I’m very concerned with the notion of community,” Heppner said. “No person should be allowed to just buy up houses and rent them out through a management company.”
Councilman-elect Lorin Rose, who will be seated in a couple weeks, gave his thoughts.
“We have to decide whether we want to be a community or a commodity,” he said, noting the fire department is having trouble keeping volunteers because there aren’t enough going people to participate.
Supervisor Bill McKenna said he agrees with a majority of the board on the need for regulation and enforcement, but not an all-out ban. “I don’t see how you put the genie back in the bottle,” he said.
Homeowners, committee members react
Whatever the town decides, it may impact young, first-time homeowners who might need extra income to afford their mortgage payments or people nearing retirement who need the extra savings. Some see it as a way to encourage investment in the community.
Laurie Ylvisaker, who is on the short-term rental committee, said the concept has been part of Woodstock for decades, whether it be snowbirds who rent their house out over the winter, or others who leave in the summer. The difference now is the type of people listing on short-term rental sites. “This is not being done by people who have lived here for a long time. It’s new energy.”
Mark Rosenberg, who opened Sharkie’s meatball shop on Tinker Street, said he noticed a lot of neglected properties, but now sees major investment in improvements. “Someone comes in, opens a business and improves the space,” he said. “I see a lot of rebirth and rejuvenation. We’ve got to be so careful in how we regulate.”
Rose, who will be tackling the issue soon as part of the Town Board, tried to allay fears of those who may lose their livelihood because they don’t occupy their homes while they are rented. The board needs to figure out a way to allow for a designated caretaker.
Planning Board member Paul Shultis Jr., who also served on the short-term rental committee, said that was the intent of the current zoning.
Jill Fisher, who lives near a property rented short-term, is in favor of a limit in order to preserve a sense of community. “What’s disturbing to neighborhoods is to have continual turnover,” she said.
“I do very much worry about considering non-owner-occupied homes,” said Duff Allen, who has contended with noise and garbage near his Yerry Hill Road home.
Much work to be done
The town still must decide on how it will proceed and if there are any zoning changes, those will go to the Planning Board for review and will include ample opportunity for public comment.
Rose cautioned there must be balance in how regulations are used. “The zoning law should be a shield, not a sword,” he said.
In addition to Ylvisaker and Shultis, Ed Sanders, Lorin Rose and Kerry Muldoon are on the committee.++