Short term rentals have been dominating the agendas at Woodstock’s planning board and zoning board of appeals meetings as new zoning regulations passed in 2019 have taken effect.
At the planning board, between four and six public hearings on applications for short term rental units on properties that are not owner-occupied full time have been scheduled for most meetings, with an equal number of sketch plan reviews and votes on decisions.
The zoning board of appeals, which alternates Thursday evening meeting times with the planning board, has been wrestling with a growing number of variance requests for short term rental applications passed on to them by the Woodstock building department, and occasionally the planning board.
The Town Board, in wanting to reach a compromise when it passed the law last May, limited non-owner-occupied short-term rentals to a total of 180 days or 26 weekends. It also limited them to one property per owner, while also seeking to keep an eye on parking issues, noise and other complaints, and potential safety issues, by requiring annual permit renewals. In the late summer, a cap of 150 non-owner-occupied and 190 owner-occupied STR properties was set for the town. A special use permit process was approved for non-owner-occupied STRs, requiring an application process before the planning board, while all other owner-occupied applications go only to the building department, after the filling out of an application complete with supplementary materials.
Simultaneous to the town actions regarding short term rentals – a market that has boomed in recent years, changing the character of Woodstock in many ways – Ulster County’s new comptroller, March Gallagher, recently announced an audit of the county’s short-term rental markets to see if the county’s been collecting enough “bed tax” funds of late.
When announcing her audit last month Gallagher referenced recent press releases from Airbnb that noted having had 184,600 visitors spending $31.9 million throughout 2019. Ulster County Finance Commissioner Burt Gulnick has said that preliminary 2019 “bed tax” numbers from short-term rentals were “well over $400,000” for last year, a significant hike from 2018’s $180,000.
Beginning in 2018, the county hired a Utah-based firm to scour internet sites and report back to the county on properties being advertised on the internet for short-term lodging. The county then reaches out to those property owners and requires them to register their property and begin paying the occupancy tax paid by the hotel and motel industry.
Ulster County is by far the busiest short-term rental market upstate from New York City, with Dutchess County hosting only about a third what Ulster does. In the county, Woodstock is by far the largest market.
At the ZBA’s February 13 meeting, board members discussed several variance requests that included one property which sought use of the town’s parking lot off Tannery Brook Road as a means of meeting its overnight parking needs; a request from a long-term owner of a grandfathered-in accessory apartment that it be okayed for short-term rentals despite being in a designated flood area; and another request for a second rental unit on a property owned by long-term Woodstockers.
While expressing sympathy for most of the variance requesters situations, not including the parking lot request, ZBA members noted the differences between state building and town zoning codes.
It was noted how difficult it was to “grandfather” in previously-grandfathered situations under new zoning regulations. It was also noted how town codes supersede more generic state codes, as well as how they need to stress the differences between short and long term rentals that the state hasn’t yet recognized in its building and fire codes.
When ZBA member Gordon Wemp admitted that he was leaning in favor of the one applicant in a flood area because of his “personal grudge” against the ways in which many floodways have been defined, fellow ZBA member Jude Sillato answered that she just “wants us to be careful moving forward.”
One request for a short term rental law related variance was denied – for the parking “do-se-do” as one ZBA member put it – and the rest were pushed forward for action,
At recent planning board meetings, sketch plan reviews tended to last five minutes or less, and public hearings stretched to a minute at most, including requests to those in attendance to see if anyone wanted to make comments on applications.
Applicants, most of whom made the trip north from New York City and environs for the short sessions due to a clause in the new law that requires direct representation, were told that they didn’t need to return in person when their final plans and permits are okayed.
“These are all legal requirements, formalities,” planning board member Conor Wenk said when one visibly irate applicant asked at a late December, 2019 meeting, “what is the reason for this meeting?”
Other planners explained at the time that the nature of local zoning laws is that they are a means of protecting both neighbors’ rights, and the character of small communities such as Woodstock. Nothing gets denied at first, it was noted…only after three complaints get filed by neighbors, or problems arise once a permit has been issued.
Planning board secretary Therese Fernandez explained that by and large, the planning board looks at whether a short term rental application involves any changes to the exterior of a building, or excessive lighting. Questions asked of all applicants in the sketch plan review section of the evening also focus on the number of parking spaces provided (one per bedroom, plus one for the owner), whether there was a pool or hot tub on site, and what arrangements had been made for a property manager for the property.
“These are quasi-commercial entities,” it was explained to those who’d trekked to town offices for the review process.
“As you can tell, we’re just going through the procedures,” added longtime planning board member Peter Cross back in late 2019, before he was named the planning board’s new chairman, almost apologetically. “Mostly, these things are all to be handled by the building department.”