Saranac Lake board talks regulations with STR owners
SARANAC LAKE — As the village board takes steps toward drafting regulations and creating a permit system for short-term vacation rentals, the owners of these STRs are telling the village they’re concerned regulations will drive them out of business, and they’re asking the village to scale back the regulations it is considering.
Mayor Jimmy Williams said he does not believe STR owners’ fears are needed. The board’s goal is to not negatively impact locals who have these businesses in the village. Williams, who owns STR properties himself, believes they will not be hurt by the STR cap or permit system.
Still, some STR owners worry regulation will stunt the market’s growth and asked the village to let them self-regulate, or let the market take care of regulation.
The village’s Dec. 12 STR work session was a lengthy meeting, stretching for several hours, with lots of cross-talk, circular conversation and debate between the board and STR owners.
“Any time you get community members in a back-and-forth conversation with the board is a win,” Williams said a day after the meeting.
Trustee Kelly Brunette brought some proposed regulations to bounce off of the STR owners. She emphasized that these were just numbers to discuss.
The reaction? “No.” Some oppose regulation on its face, saying it would be a government overreach. STR owner Ona Allen said it reminds her of “Big Brother.” Others felt some regulation is fine, as long as it does not impact their business. Not all STR owners wanted to be quoted.
“We fundamentally are for no regulations,” STR owner Jacob Agostino said. “I don’t think the government should tell us how to do anything with our property. But we understand that regulations are going to happen and are somewhat necessary. So we’re looking for a compromise.”
They hope the board will eventually settle on setting fewer regulations.
“A lot of us have our life savings wrapped up in this business,” Allen said.
“This is like all of our jobs,” Jacob said. “Five people are deciding whether or not we move, if we can do business. It’s a big deal to a lot of people.”
It’s a social thing, too. STR owners said they feel like social pariahs because of their businesses. The Agostinos said their neighbors either love them or hate them. Sophie Agostino said they’ve been called greedy, which she said is hurtful. Some said they don’t talk about STR renting in public because they get bad looks.
They don’t feel welcome, which they felt in part is because of the board’s discussion of regulating them. Allen felt the animosity she feels comes from this newspaper.
“How is it that the Enterprise only carries the most negative things about short-term rentals that you can read?” she asked. “We need more positive stuff coming out of the newspaper and the media about short-term rentals and their owners. Because all we’ve seen is being vilified, basically.”
“We bring a lot of revenue to this community,” Allen added.
They also they give Saranac Lake “free advertising” through their STR platforms, she said. She uses her STR revenues to “subsidize” her long-term rentals. And she donates to local charities.
“If you want to lose me I’ll go,” Allen said.
The board told her they did not want her to go.
“When I read the Enterprise, the board’s values are ‘We don’t want them (STRs). We want to get rid of you guys. We hate your guts. You’re not doing anything for the community,'” Allen said.
“The board is not trying to go against people like you,” Village Treasurer Bachana Tsiklauri said.
“Except it doesn’t feel that way,” Allen said. “When you’re vilified in the newspaper as being a bad thing for Saranac Lake, that doesn’t feel comfortable or welcoming.”
Chris Dorman said he gets offers every day from people wanting to buy his properties. He said if the village scares “talent” out with its regulations, big corporations will move in to buy up the land. Dorman said he’s heard several STR owners consider “cashing out” and leaving the business over the proposed regulations.
STR owners said they can do great things for the town — make its houses beautiful, its businesses prosperous — so why regulate them?
The village is seriously considering capping the number of STR permits issued in Saranac Lake. Brunette said other communities have such caps.
Williams said there’s an acceptable number of housing units to have “tied up” in tourist housing. The village still wants a healthy school population, sports teams full of young athletes and a strong community feeling.
“We don’t want more tourists. We want more residents,” Williams said.
Martin said this is speculation. He said the village should set how many houses it needs to fill all the jobs here and reverse engineer the cap that way.
Williams said it would take so long to get stats and they would change by that time. Martin said the village is trying to regulate a moving target, which is the point he was making.
Brunette said this cap would be reevaluated each year.
Dorman said with STRs currently only making up 3.5% of housing units in the village, he felt there is no emergent need to cap.
Williams said if anything, limiting the number should increase revenues for the people who operate them now.
Another proposed regulation would limit the maximum allowable number of STRs to be owned by one individual to four properties.
Dorman said this would stifle growth of successful STR owners. He said the market should decide. If someone runs good Airbnbs, they should be able to have as many as they can, he said, since they’re good at it.
Jacob and Sophie Agostino believe there will always only be a certain number of STRs. They said the bad ones weed themselves out and competition makes sure the market stays sustainable.
Martin said he has worked hard and is the first in his family to live on Lake Flower. As he is estate planning, he said he wants his kids to keep the house. He said his daughter will need to find a way to afford the $20,000 in taxes he pays a year. The best way, he felt, is owning several STRs, more than the village is considering allowing.
“I’ll agree with whatever you guys decide to do, but that will change what I do,” Martin said.
Brunette said the village’s records show no one owns more than four STRs but several owners at the meeting said they personally own five.
“Part of what we agree on is we don’t have good data,” Williams said.
Everyone agreed with that. STR owners were miffed the village had not contacted them directly to get those figures.
“We can help you with that data,” Allen said. “Talk to us to get the real numbers.”
Williams said exceptions can be made to any of these rules by a village board vote “if it makes sense for the village.” Billy Martin said this will just create “more bureaucracy.” He felt the whole thing is an “overreach and oversight.”
One of the regulations the village is proposing is a ban on “non-individual owners.”
STR properties would need to be owned by an individual, individuals, sole proprietorship, general partnership, limited liability partnership or a limited liability company — no corporations.
Adam Harris asked what’s to keep a Fortune 500 company from forming an LLC and buying up houses in Saranac Lake to turn them into STRs. Nothing, Williams said.
There are loopholes around these rules that he said will need to be plugged during the legal process. He said the village may determine who is a “local” by requesting a voting address or driver’s license.
Williams said many of Lake Placid’s buildings are owned by foreign-owned corporate entities.
“There’s no community. There’s no personality. There’s nobody there to back you up when you have a rough day,” he said.
Some of the proposed regulations are for STR owners to agree to rules on noise, garbage, parking and nuisances.
Some STR owners said they already do this. But some don’t, Brunette said. STR owners laughed. “Who doesn’t?” they asked. Brunette said some don’t, but she didn’t want to name names.
Allen said they feel singled out. Long-term rentals have the same nuisance problems as STRs, too. Brunettes said they are working on enforcing nuisance and property maintenance code across the board for STRs and LTRs.
“STRs are probably in the top 5-10% of the most well-kept, manicured properties,” Williams said.
“Thank you for saying that,” Allen said.
She had been feeling attacked by the board.
“It started out that the STRs are evil,” Allen said. “The rules and regs we already have in place, that’s what started this problem, which we don’t think there’s a problem.”
She said STR owners “self-regulate beyond belief” and have regulations from their hosting platforms, too.
Jacob Agostino said the market limits itself already — if STRs are not good, they go away. If the good people rise to the top, it makes for better STRs.
Everyone’s concerns were generational.
Brunette said she wants to make sure her children can afford to live here. Martin said he wants to make sure his children can afford to keep the family lake house here. It’s harder to own land for middle class people because of high taxes and property prices, everyone agreed.
“This has let me stay here and live here and support my family,” Dorman said.
Dorman said he cannot afford to rent units as apartments because taxes, heating oil and maintenance costs are all high. The rent would have to be very high to make the budget work. He said the only way for him to rent out his units are to make them STRs. Otherwise they would sit vacant, he said.
Homes here are old and people can’t afford to renovate them with long-term rental revenue budgets, Agostino said. But STR revenue is higher and can make turning vacant homes into livable structures more affordable.
Martin felt STRs are a “scapegoat” for the underlying real issue — vacant property. He said the village should cap the number of vacant units in town. Brunette said the village is already exceeding that cap and that they are working to bring it down.
Williams said his grandfather used to be able to walk down to the California coastline and swim at the beaches there. Then, wealthy people bought up the coastline and made it private, inaccessible. Then the next line of property was bought up. Now, he said the closest blue-collar people can live to the coast is a couple of miles inland.
That’s happening in the Adirondacks, but instead of a linear path, it’s a circle here. He described wanting to defend the culture of the Adirondacks from wealth.
“There will be, in the future, some issues safeguarding a place for residents to be here,” Williams said.
A lot of people got exposed to the Adirondacks during the pandemic, he said.
“It’s paradise,” Williams said.
“We’re not trying to say that STRs are evil. We’re not trying to say that they’re causing anything,” Williams said. “But we want a 100-year solution to maintain some kind of community.”
Earlier in the meeting, Martin had said Saranac Lake is like “Hotel California” — “You can check in anytime you like but you can never leave.” That was another thing everyone agreed on; Saranac Lake is just such a nice place to be.
But everyone had different ideas of what will preserve that warm feeling.
Some STR owners felt that Saranac Lake will never become Lake Placid, which had two Olympic Winter Games, recieved lots of state money for sports venue upgrades and gets lots of international attention.
Allen said Saranac Lake has always been a hospitality town, even back in the days of lumberjacks and tuberculosis.
Thoughts at the end of the meeting
Jeremy Evans, a village resident, CEO of the Franklin County Economic Development Corporation and a candidate for mayor earlier this year, said he has no dog in this fight, but he co-signed the village board’s decisions, saying they were taking a “pretty darn balanced approach,” which he applauded.
Evans pointed out that in the village board’s first STR session a group of young people attended and told the board how they can’t afford homes or has been evicted to make way for STRs. Last week, he said there was another perspective from another group of young people when the STR owners attended. Both sides of concerns are just as real, just as passionate, he said.
At the end, STR owners thanked the board for listening to them.
Jacob Agostino felt some board members were earnestly listening to them, and others were “just zoned out.” He said they didn’t get heard by everyone, but got heard. Before this, STR owners felt they hadn’t had any input on the regulations.
There are also potential limits of three STR units per building and two guests per bedroom.
STR owners asked the village board to raise the numbers for these restrictions and also make permits transferable by sale or inheritance.
Dorman said the rules are “getting there.” Brunette said they are not done by any means. She said the board wants to get the most positives out of STRs possible.
Walter Wilson, a village resident whose family lived in Lake Placid for generations, said he recently moved here from Schenectady to help friends who bought an STR he’s helping to restore. Now, he’s fallen in love with the Saranac Lake community and wants to become part of it. He said he sees both sides of this debate.
He would like to buy a three-unit building, live in one and rent the others as STRs to afford it.
Wilson said “something has to be done” and what the village board has looks to be in the right direction to him.
Williams said the board’s next meeting on Monday may be moved to the Harrietstown Town Hall auditorium to accommodate more participants.