Shandaken takes cautious steps toward short-term rental regulations

Looking down at Phoenicia.

No decisions were made at the December 10 meeting of the Town of Shandaken’s short-term rental committee, but the chairperson and town supervisor, Rob Stanley, said the group is not in a rush as it works to craft regulations for Airbnb and other short-term rentals (STRs). They will continue to gather information from Ulster County, attorneys, insurance agents, and municipalities with existing STR regulations, before putting together a questionnaire for town residents, the next outward step in the process.

During the discussion, no interruption by the public was allowed. At the end of the meeting, the committee turned to the small audience — mostly STR owners — and invited comment, eliciting a lively debate on the extent to which STRs have boosted the local economy and whether they are responsible for the decrease in affordable housing in town. The talk remained civil, despite the flying of sparks at recent meetings. By the end, several audience members expressed gratification at the direction of the process and the willingness of the committee to hear input from STR owners.

Committee members discussed possible parameters for inclusion in the new regs, but they decided not to move forward until after the presentation by Ulster County Planning Department Director Dennis Doyle at their next meeting on Monday, January 14, at 6:30 p.m. They resolved informally that each of the committee members would come up with ten possible questions for the questionnaire.


The committee has been looking at STR regulations of other municipalities, including the recent draft that took the Town of Woodstock a year to put together. Building inspector Howard McGowan summarized Shandaken town code regarding categories of housing that are similar to STRs, which are not precisely covered in the regulations. “If you want to put an accessory apartment inside a single-family residence, every zone requires a special use permit. A guest cottage on a residential property is allowed, without a kitchen, but it needs a special use permit. I’ve had inquiries about campgrounds, but they’re not allowed in a residential district. In every residential zone, a B-and-B requires a special use permit before opening.” Despite the name Airbnb, as residents observed in the post-meeting discussion, STRs do not generally serve food and cannot be defined as B-and-Bs.

Planning board chair Don Brewer said every special use permit requires a site plan and takes at least two months to obtain. With an estimated 128 STRs in Shandaken, the approval process would be overwhelming if special use permits were required. “We need a new zoning category,” said zoning board member Mark Loete.

“Woodstock’s law is only three pages long,” said Stanley. “We don’t want to rip everything apart.”


Insurance questions

The committee discussed having a streamlined registration process, possibly online. “If we did move forward,” said Stanley, “there would be a 30-day wait period for neighbors to have their say,” as with special use permits. Even with an online process, the town would most likely have to hire an extra part-time employee, whose wages would be paid by a registration fee.

The Woodstock draft regs include parking and loading standards, noise standards, and a requirement that each STR owner conspicuously post a standardized placard of emergency instructions.

Stanley said he would invite an insurance agent to a committee meeting to outline the pitfalls or advantages of relying on the liability insurance Airbnb provides for all its hosts. “Usually insurance involves an inspection process,” he said. “I don’t know how Airbnb’s works. They just have pictures of the house.”

“I was told by an agent he wouldn’t stand by it,” said McGowan. “He advised people to have their own policy. It’s not very expensive to carry.”

“Worst-case scenario,” said Loete, “someone burns up in an Airbnb that’s not up to code, and people couldn’t find their way out because egress was not posted. How much liability does the town bear?”

“It seems we would be liable if the town allowed a business to exist without proper inspections,” said Brewer.

“Initially there has to be a fire safety inspection,” McGowan agreed.

Committee members affirmed the importance of coming up with a questionnaire that doesn’t lead results in either a positive or negative direction regarding STRs. Stanley commented on questions suggested by the Phoenicia Home Sharing Association, saying he found some questions useful but thought others were too obvious and leading, such as asking whether the respondent approved of tourism in the town. STR owners later said their anxiety had been aroused by questions bandied about at a previous meeting, such as “Do you think STRs are a community killer?” There was disagreement about whether the word “killer” had been used, but committee members assured the audience they would not employ such negative language in the final questionnaire.

“There will be basic questions,” said Stanley, “like how long you’ve lived here. And some questions on home sharing — ‘Have you dealt with them?’ ‘Do you know of any in the immediate area?’ Then we can tell if they’re putting all negatives down, and it turns out they don’t know anyone in the area.”

The next Shandaken short-term rental committee meeting will be held on Monday, January 14, at 6:30 p.m. at the town hall.

Disclosure: The writer rents her full-time residence intermittently on Airbnb but is not a member of the STR Facebook group.