An attempt by Brookhaven Town officials to crack down on overcrowded rental homes by limiting the number of cars parked outside has prompted worries that the law may be unconstitutional.

The law, approved by the town board by a 5-2 vote on Oct. 1, allows rental houses to have as many vehicles as bedrooms, plus one more car. For example, no more than four cars would be allowed at a three-bedroom home.

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The restrictions, which do not affect owner-occupied homes, divided civic groups in Stony Brook, where residents have complained about boardinghouses occupied by a dozen or more university students.

Town Supervisor Edward P. Romaine said the law would help Brookhaven officials continue cracking down on landlords who violate town building codes. Town officials said last year they had taken enforcement actions against dozens of rental properties in the Stony Brook area.

"What we don't need is rentals providing additional cars on the streets," Romaine said.

But some town board members and civic leaders, while supporting the law's goals, expressed reservations. Councilwoman Valerie Cartright, who represents Stony Brook and cast one of the dissenting votes, said she is concerned that landlords could successfully sue the town.

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"I don't think in this particular instance, we should be pushing the envelope," Cartright said in an interview. "If there's a lawsuit, it's going to be the taxpayers that are going to be footing the bill."

Councilwoman Connie Kepert, who also voted against the restrictions, said the law may violate the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law. "As it's written, it's violating the rights of a subgroup, which happens to be renters," Kepert said. "It's not a good precedent to set."

Romaine said landlords who want to provide more parking for tenants may apply for an exemption from the town Board of Zoning Appeals.

"I don't believe it's a constitutional question because we are saying if you are applying for a rental permit that you are not going to burden the neighborhood . . . by having more cars than a bedroom plus one," Romaine said.

Leaders of two area civic groups disagreed about the law. Civic Association of the Setaukets and Stony Brook president Shawn Nuzzo said the law should also apply to owner-occupied homes.

"If this is a public safety issue, it should apply to all," Nuzzo said. "If a car parked on a street is dangerous, it shouldn't matter whether that car is registered to an owner or a renter or a visitor."

But Bruce Sander, a founder of Stony Brook Concerned Homeowners, said the law would deter landlords from housing too many students.

"It's another tool in our chest of devices we need to enforce the law on the rental houses," Sander said. "I think it's going to be a good deterrent."

With Deon J. Hampton