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Southold landlords challenge law banning short-term rentals

As the North Fork’s tourism season begins, some Southold residents are trying to overturn a town law banning short-term rentals advertised on websites such as Airbnb.

Salem Katsh, an Orient lawyer who said he represents more than a dozen landlords, wrote a letter to town board members March 24 calling the regulation “legally flawed” and demanding it be suspended.

Katsh said he also filed two cases with the town’s zoning board of appeals on March 25 for clients seeking relief from the law.

Last August, Southold officials made it illegal for residents to rent their homes for less than 14 nights. They have sent out 35 letters to landlords suspected of violating the law, Katsh said, adding that some of his clients have received letters, which threaten fines of up to $8,000 per day.

Supervisor Scott Russell and town attorney Bill Duffy did not return calls or emails seeking comment Wednesday.

Southold is among towns and cities on Long Island and nationwide grappling with how to regulate web services that allow property owners to rent their homes and apartments to vacationers.

Some local residents had complained that the websites enabled their neighbors to turn their houses into motels for tourists seeking short stays near the area’s wineries and beaches.

On Aug. 25, the day the law passed in a 4-1 vote, Russell said it was not intended to eliminate “bad behavior” by vacationers but instead to preserve a “quality of life” for people in residential neighborhoods, according to a transcript of the meeting. “We have a residential zone for a reason,” he said.

Under the law, rentals are presumed illegal if they are advertised on websites such as Airbnb, HomeAway and VRBO. This is the first full tourist season the law would be in effect.

Katsh said the town board overlooked how vital short-term rentals are to the area’s tourism industry, which he said suffers from a lack of traditional lodging.

“Motels, hotels and bed-and-breakfasts can’t come close to the demand for vacation rentals, especially for people who want to bring their pets or have kids,” Katsh said. “There are groups, there are classes of renters, for whom short-term renting is the perfect fit.”

Some North Fork homeowners, including those with investment properties, rely on renting out their houses for income, Katsh said. He argued it is illegal for the law to retroactively affect landlords already engaged in the short-term rental business, and said they should be “grandfathered” in.

Katsh also argued it’s a violation of the First Amendment for town officials to penalize landlords for merely advertising their properties. He said Wednesday that Southold officials have not responded to his letter.

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