On December 10, the Gardiner Town Board voted unanimously to extend by three months the moratorium on accepting or processing new applications for tourism-related development projects, such as resorts or campgrounds, for which municipal regulations are currently being tweaked by town officials. It will now expire on March 31, 2020.
The action coincided with a public hearing on the proposed new Local Law to Amend Chapters 200 and 220 of the Gardiner Town Code Regulating Certain Tourism-Related Accommodation Uses, as well as a board discussion of the need for a brand-new law regulating short-term rentals such as AirBnBs, which did not exist as such at the time that the code was formulated. Local residents, most of them homeowners who rent out all or parts of their homes to tourists on a regular basis, packed Town Hall for the meeting.
What followed was a mostly civil and seemingly productive discussion, taking some of the steam out of an allegation recently sent to the press by the Short-Term Rental Association of Gardiner (STRAG) that “we have been mostly ignored and brushed aside by the Gardiner Town Board.” Board members clarified their priorities for the new law and suggested specific ways for STRAG to contribute to its drafting, without acceding to the group’s earlier demand to have some of its members named to a committee dedicated to that purpose. The board tabled adoption of the current draft of the proposed law until more public input can be included; it also committed itself to setting aside time at its January 14 meeting specifically for discussion of the issue of whole-house rentals — the sources of most complaints from neighbors — and whether they need to be treated differently under the law from single-bedroom rentals.
Town supervisor Marybeth Majestic launched the discussion by sharing a timeline for shaping the new law, as well as some templates for similar legislation adopted by other towns. “In Rhinebeck, there are no short-term rentals allowed unless you live in the home eight or more months per year. That’s stricter than New York State regulations,” she said. “If you’ve been to Rhinebeck, you know it’s one of the most beautiful towns in our area — and they intend on keeping it that way.” Majestic also noted that operators of bed-and-breakfasts in Gardiner are required to undergo a rigorous site plan review process, and questioned whether it was fair to such residents for AirBnB hosts to have no comparable requirements.
Noting that the Town Board was tasked to “make decisions for the benefit of the whole community,” deputy supervisor Laura Walls praised the AirBnB model as a “great opportunity” for financially strapped Gardiner residents to supplement their income. But she emphasized that her top priorities as a board member included preserving such local values as quiet, privacy, bicycle and pedestrian safety, dark skies and a sense of community, as well as encouraging visitors to spend money at town-based businesses. “Simply legalizing short-term rentals isn’t the answer to the community’s needs,” Walls said. “It’s a step.” She also expressed concern that whole-house rentals with absentee owners “force up prices and undermine affordable housing” in the town.
Councilman Warren Wiegand agreed, saying, “I’m paying attention to two things: noise and safety, and how the character of the town will be affected. Good oversight of short-term rentals is really key.” He noted that administration and enforcement of the new law would likely prove “an expensive process for the Town of Gardiner,” suggesting that user fees would have to be charged to owners. “Fines as well,” said fellow councilman Franco Carucci, urging that making violations “cost-prohibitive” would help bring owners of problem houses into compliance. “Let people do the right thing until they don’t, and then do something about it.” Noting that none of the “cabin tax” imposed by Ulster County on tourist accommodations gets funneled back to the towns, councilman David Dukler said, “Wouldn’t it be a great thing to bring money into the town by setting up a dedicated conservation fund? That could help preserve the very things that people want to come to Gardiner for,” which he identified as the town’s “rural appeal and open space.”
Gardiner fire chief Matt Goodnow argued that any income from fees should be dedicated instead to covering the costs incurred by emergency services to the AirBnB sites, which he said often involved alarms going off in the middle of the night and responders not being able to contact the property-owners to obtain access to a building without smashing in doors. He said he feared that such nuisance calls might be “tying us up when there’s a real emergency. Safety has to be thought about…We keep your costs low because we’re volunteers.”
The board invited STRAG members and local business-owners to assist in the research phase of the drafting of the law by supplying data documenting how much local commerce is generated by AirBnB visitors. Rather than make vague complaints about the proposed restrictions, Walls suggested, “It would be helpful if you take the draft law and translate it to what you’d like to see.” “We’ve written a couple of counter-versions,” protested Todd Baker, supervisor of STRAG. “We want to be able to designate employed surrogates who can take care of a house in lieu of the residents. We sent research about home prices…We proposed that STRAG be the enforcement arm” for any new law.
While such an arrangement might be perceived by town officials as a matter of the fox guarding the henhouse, the discussion ended on a generally cordial note, with the board promising to tackle the whole-house issue separately at its second January meeting. “This room is full of people who are entrepreneurs who want to see Gardiner succeed,” Baker assured the officials. “None of us want our properties to burn. None of us want our neighbors to hate us.”