Shelter Island was the last of the five East End towns...

Shelter Island was the last of the five East End towns to adopt short-term rental restrictions.  Credit: Randee Daddona

Shelter Island officials are considering changes to the town's strict short-term rental law, making it easier for some year-round residents to rent out their home.

Proponents said the changes could help residents who rely on summer season rentals for income.

Under the current rental law adopted in 2017, Shelter Islanders are allowed to rent out their homes for short stays — which residents characterize as a Shelter Island summer tradition stretching back over a century — as long as they have a town license and maintain a two-week buffer period between guest check-ins, regardless of the length of the rental. The law led to complaints and a lawsuit from town residents who said it became more difficult to rent out their property in the summer.

Among the proposed changes is the addition of a “Homesteaders Hardship Exemption,” to remove the 14-day buffer period for permanent residents who earn less than five times the federal poverty level. That threshold would equal $128,750 for a family of four. The change would limit short-term rentals to six per year.

Shelter Island Town Supervisor Gary Gerth, a critic of the rental law adopted before he took office, said the proposed changes are intended to support year-round residents who rely on the revenue to make ends meet.

“They’re not renting because they love to rent,” said Gerth, a Republican who pushed for the changes. “They’re renting because it provides extra income.”

The change is intended to allow residents to rent their home during a single period over the summer, rather than undergo the inconvenience of moving in and out several times during the season, according to town attorney Bob DeStefano.

Other changes include decreased first-offense minimum fines from $500 to a maximum of $250, the creation of a registry for all rentals, including year-round, and a requirement to notify the town of each new tenant.

Shelter Island in 2017 became the last of the five East End towns to adopt short-term rental restrictions following contentious public hearings where some claimed regulation would hurt the town economically. Others said short-term rentals turned private homes into commercial businesses.

Julia Weisenberg, a Republican town board candidate and the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed against the town over the law, said she thinks the regulations should be reworked, although she declined to give specifics as to how. Weisenberg said she relies on rental earnings as her main source of income and hasn’t found tenants willing to rent for more than 14 days after the law went into effect, according to the suit.

“We have to go back to the drawing board,” she said.

Judge LaShann DeArcy Hall in U.S. Eastern District Courtin Brooklyn dismissed most of the major claims in the lawsuit in March. A joint status report is due May 13 and a trial is pending. 

Town Councilman Jim Colligan said if Shelter Island hadn’t imposed restrictions on short stays, the quiet town would have become an East End magnet for those booking through online sites. He said he thought the latest changes to the law, which he said is the least strict of the East End towns, are a fair compromise.

East Hampton Town limits short-term rentals to two stays of less than 15 days within a six-month period. Riverhead Town prohibits rentals of 29 days or less. Southold Town passed a law in 2015 that prohibits short-term rentals of less than 14 nights. Southampton Town prohibits short-term rentals of less than 14 days except for special events approved by the town board, such as the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in 2018. The code may be superseded by laws in incorporated villages, many of which have their own restrictions.

“I don’t know if towns, state and counties were equipped to deal with how fast the [home sharing] industry grew,” Colligan said.

A public hearing on the changes is set for May 3 at Shelter Island Town Hall.

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