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Short-term rental conversation heats up

From left, short-term rental owners Chris Dorman, Brian Draper and Wayne Zukin talk with Saranac Lake village Trustee Rich Shapiro about STR regulation on Wednesday in the Harrietstown Town Hall auditorium. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

SARANAC LAKE — A public input session on short-term rental regulation Wednesday was a bit chaotic, but through the argument and conversation, several points were clear. STR owners feel threatened by the village’s proposal, regulation supporters want to reduce or eliminate “absentee owners,” and the village hopes regulation would improve Saranac Lake’s housing stock.

Over 40 people gathered in the town hall auditorium, creating little circles of conversation around the room, mostly centered on the village trustees there.

The village is proposing a permit system for STRs after hearing complaints from some residents about their proliferation, fearing that converting units limits apartment availability and changes the aesthetics of the village. At the last board meeting, trustees voted to purchase software for STR data collection from the company Rentalscape, but trustees agreed to wait on buying further software for public outreach, compliance and enforcement, after concerns from STR owners that the process was moving too fast.

Wednesday’s session was heavily attended by STR owners who came out because they feel their primary or secondary income is threatened by the village’s proposed regulations. They’re worried the proposed regulations are a slippery slope, saying once the village gets a foot in the door to regulate, it can snowball from there.

“Where does it end?” several asked.

STR owner Chris Dorman said creeping regulation could eventually make it too hard for anyone to run an STR.

Most other STR owners declined to give their names, saying they’d rather speak to the Enterprise as a group in the future.

People supporting STR regulation were not vocal at the meeting, but some comments left on sticky notes asked for the village to strictly regulate non-owner-occupied STRs, specifically. One note suggested a limit on the number of days a year these units can be rented out. Another said companies buying properties to turn them into STRs should be banned outright, saying this depletes the affordable housing stock in the village.

“They are now BUSINESSES, so should have to abide by rules, regulations, restrictions, fees, just like all other businesses,” one note said.

“Absentee owners should be banned (if that can be done legally),” another said.

What’s the reason?

STR owners said they feel the village already has a regulation plan it’s been working on for a while without their input. Shapiro said the village only has a proposal and that this is their time to comment.

STR owners said they’re unsure how the village views their business and felt Shapiro is anti-STR.

Shapiro said he believes STRs are an important part of Saranac Lake’s tourism lodging industry, but that he does not want Saranac Lake to turn into Lake Placid, where affordable housing is increasingly rare and some residents say the quality of their neighborhoods have dropped.

STR owners wondered how Saranac Lake could move forward with wanting to regulate without getting the input of the entire community, adding that they feel their position has not been heard.

Shapiro said, anecdotally, he sees more people in the village worried about an affordable housing shortage than STRs.

In an unscientific Enterprise straw poll published Tuesday, 62% of 623 respondents said STRs should be regulated in some way. Thirty-six percent said they should not.

STR owners said their properties bring a positive impact to Saranac Lake and denied they cause a housing shortage.

Dorman said growing up in Saranac Lake, everyone left because there was “nothing here” and everything was falling down.

Now he said people want to visit and live in Saranac Lake, in part because he believes STRs improve properties and promote tourism.

Shapiro said “the community” does not include absentee STR owners who run them through LLCs. One person said they spoke to an LLC owner who was in tears, who told them the village trustees were “killing his dream” with regulation. He bought a house for half a million dollars and built an ancillary unit to help pay his taxes. Shapiro said the village’s proposed regulation would not kill this dream as long as he could afford the $100 or $200 annual permit fee.

Enforcement

STR owner and developer Wayne Zukin, who lives here and in Philadelphia and owns many properties in Saranac Lake, said the village does not have the staff to enforce new STR regulations. He said the regulations would add a heavy workload on code enforcement staff who are already overburdened.

“We’re doing a number of development projects in the village, and we are having trouble getting prompt and efficient responses from code enforcement,” Zukin said. “To add an additional task without the funding to hire another guy … is irresponsible.”

STR owners said these regulations would create rules for STRs that aren’t enforced for long-term rental properties. They see apartments with messy lawns and loud tenants, or units with an illegal number of occupants, which they say the village is doing nothing about, and they feel targeted.

STR owners wondered how the village can regulate what they can and can’t do with their investments. STR owner Calli Shelton of Saranac Lake said only regulating STRs violates constitutional property rights. Shapiro said he disagreed.

Data

Some said the village is “dancing a fine line” by collecting private data, wondering if it violates constitutional rights.

Others asked why the village needs a third-party software to collect the data, saying they could collect it themselves from the Airbnb website in just a few hours.

At the last village board meeting Monday, village Community Development Director Jamie Konkoski said they chose Rentalscape because it scrapes listings from other, smaller STR services, too, and provides more information, such as addresses and owner contact information.

Tough conversation

The group conversation was at times scattered, emotional or personal.

The discussion sometimes got off topic, at points leaving the topic of STRs and devolving into arguments over people’s statements at previous meetings, Facebook comments and the nature of truth itself.

The larger a crowd got, the less coherent its conversation got. All parties seemed exasperated, each feeling the other side was not understanding them. Questions and answers would be interrupted by another member of the group.

Many questions would be asked at once, and an inflammatory statement from any party would derail the conversation. A point was rarely talked through to a conclusion.

STR owners said they were unsatisfied with the public input meeting’s format.

They each wrote a speech for the event, thinking it would be more of a public comment session. These were given to the board, and Shapiro said trustees would read them. STR owners were skeptical they would.

They said they wanted another meeting with more of a “round-table” discussion between STR owners, STR regulation supporters, long-term rental owners and the village.

The village will hold a public hearing once the local ordinance is proposed, scheduled for June 14.

Before that, it will hold an online public input event on May 13 and another open house event on May 26.

Public comment can also be given in person at any village board meeting or in writing by the Thursday before the meeting.

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