How much to regulate Airbnb? - BlueStone Press
October 21, 2017
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How much to regulate Airbnb?

Hearings continue on the Airbnb question in the town of Rochester

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At times, town board meetings can be short, dry, and predictable. Rochester’s Aug. 3 meeting was not one of those.

On the agenda was the public hearing for a proposed regulation of Airbnbs and similar short-term rental agreements; a lot of people had something to say. There was standing room only as people waited for their allotted three minutes to comment on the proposed amendment to Chapter 140 of the town zoning code.

The first speaker was Jerry Davis, code enforcement officer for the town. As the man who hears any and all complaints from neighbors about short-term rentals, Davis brought up some of those he has heard: homeowners who set no limits on the number of people who rent their properties; underage guests discovered to have dozens of bottles of liquor (in Woodstock); guests who tear up the neighborhood with 4-wheelers; guests who (it happened in the Adirondacks) use a woodstove and end up burning the house down. Davis pointed out the unfairness of requiring registered bed-and-breakfast places to pay hotel taxes while Airbnbs do not, and he ended by coming down forcefully on the side of the proposed regulations, while adding that he was not against short-term rentals in principle.

Town Supervisor Carl Chipman illustrated another problem, saying, “We have a concrete example, a gentleman who lives up on Queens Highway who has [an Airbnb] right across from him” and who has experienced “people setting off fireworks and having a good old time, and there’s nobody to call,” pointing out that, since Airbnb business is conducted online, homeowners never need meet or talk with their guests at all. Davis explained that part of the proposed regulation involves having some responsible person, whether the owner or a manager, whom town authorities can call if any problems arise with the renters. This person would have to be within a certain driving distance, perhaps no more than a half-hour away.

Mike Baden, Planning Board chairman, put forth the history of the proposed law. It was modeled on the laws of Milford, in Otsego County near Cooperstown. Baden stressed the section on fire safety. Each bedroom in a house is legally supposed to have two ways to exit, whether door or window; however, some Airbnb providers maximize their profits by repurposing rooms to serve as bedrooms that don’t meet this requirement. Also, according to the building code, the size of the septic system of each house is calculated according to the number of bedrooms in that house. The point is that if you rent your house to more people than are legally expected to live there, there can be safety issues and added strain on the septic system, which could conceivably affect your neighbor’s water quality.

“There are many situations where people buy homes with no intent to ever live there, and just rent them out continuously as Airbnbs,” said Baden. “They need to have safety inspections, just like bed and breakfasts do, just like hotels do.”

As the public hearing continued, it soon became apparent that Airbnbs have become an important source of income for a lot of local people, and that, unsurprisingly, they have a high level of concern about the proposed regulations. A number of people who got up to speak thought that there were already regulations in place to cover such issues as fire safety and septic systems. As for guests causing annoyance or disrespecting property, users of the Airbnb website claimed that its review system effectively weeded out bad actors.

“I’ve never had any problem whatsoever,” said homeowner and host Chris O’Donnell. “Airbnb has a rating system built in. These are our homes — we only want to share them with people we trust who’ve had good reviews. As a responsible user, I don’t want to be penalized.”

Again and again, people who rented their homes expressed the view that they did so responsibly and did not see why more regulations were needed. Supervisor Chipman tried to assure everyone that the regulations weren’t going to penalize anybody. He’s going to propose a one-time $75 fee and a one-time inspection; no one will be charged for these inspections, he said.

“My family and I have restored three derelict properties on Main Street,” a woman said. “The idea that I would risk my property to make another 80 bucks on the weekend is ludicrous! I’m not worried about an inspection — I would like you to lay out the criteria for passing it.” She added that she always puts brochures for local businesses in her rental rooms.

A homeowner named Bill Filliber said, “I think the proposed law is pretty good. It’s true that we ought to pay a fee. It’s true that there ought to be someone around to answer to a problem. But why shouldn’t every resident of this town be required to have their septic system inspected? If you’re really interested in fire safety, why shouldn’t every house be inspected to ensure that there are two ways out of the bedrooms?” It was unclear if the applause after his remark was in support of universal inspections or of his point: Don’t treat Airbnbs differently than other residences.

The next speaker noted that, under the proposed regulations, there are no criminal penalties for being in violation of “adult use” laws -- strip clubs and the like -- “but if I, as an Airbnb host, have one more car than what shows up in the parking lot map that I have drawn, I can go to jail for six months!” She went on, “If it were to be passed, this law could be challenged” on many grounds. Also, she added, “this issue has been thought through from one end of the country to the other. There are articles, studies, and they talk about what’s overreaching and what’s not. I must say that many of the things that appear in [the proposed law] fall in the overreach category identified in these articles. Here’s my favorite: ‘You shall indicate the way repairs to the dwelling unit shall be maintained.’ Well, I don’t know what’s going to break!” Trash removal, snow removal, lawn maintenance, even a sign out front — all these were required to be accounted for in the proposed law. She also also mentioned this: Jerry Davis is the only code enforcer for the town. He would have to make an inspection for each application before it could be approved. “What happens if there’s a backlog? What are we supposed to do?”

Many people focused on this area’s economic dependence on tourism. One woman got up and talked about how much her job in High Falls depends on weekenders. Then she said, “I’m not a homeowner, but I hope to purchase a home in a couple of years. One of the only ways I could afford to do that is with the option of Airbnb. If there are a lot of regulations that make it difficult, then that dream is far beyond my reach.”

Ryan Trepani, who works for the Catskill Forest Association, said, “Over and over again I’ve seen the same story. There’s an old lady, she can’t afford her taxes, and what does she do? She cuts only the best trees on her property and leaves the worst ones. She’s treating her forest like it’s a liability to own, not an asset.” People who rent to vacationers, however, are anxious to have their property looking good, and will not have to resort to such measures to keep their homes. Trepani visits people all over the Catskills in his job and has heard more than once, “I wouldn’t be able to live here if I didn’t have this money.”

Michael D’Agostino, the CEO of a business called Tenter, spoke next. Tenter is a business that partners with landowners to rent out campsites furnished with large tents in woods on private land. They are maintained by the company and stay up all summer and fall. His concern with the proposed law is that it might inadvertently make his business illegal because there is some language about tents in yards. “We are trying to be the new model for sustainable tourism, which I think could benefit this area,” he said, and added that his website had a similar review system to the one that Airbnb has.

Chipman reminded everyone that there are many independent rentals out there that do not go through an official website, and that not every homeowner is adhering to high standards for guest behavior.

After the outpouring of so many specific objections from people who had clearly taken the time to read through the proposal, Chipman asked the board to extend the public hearing. “Many very good points were made tonight,” he allowed.

The board plans to hold a workshop meeting at the end of August when they will consider what’s been said and probably redraft their proposal. The revised plan would then be available to the public on the town website.


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