Legal scan spawns latest Chatham STR plan

CHATHAM–The Town Board held a workshop meeting last week to review a proposed local law on short-term rental (STR) regulations. Over 30 people came to the meeting at the Tri-Village Firehouse in Old Chatham and the board asked Henry Corsun to moderate the discussion.

Mr. Corsun led the discussion at the last workshop meeting in February, which looked at the drawbacks and benefits of allowing STRs in the town. At this meeting March 5, he used at the latest draft of the proposed law to see whether residents still had concerns.

Many of the people who attended the meeting did, especially with the latest draft.

Councilwoman Abi Mesick said that this was the third draft of the law and that changes had been made from the second draft due to legal concerns. Ms. Mesick, who wrote this draft and the previous two drafts, said that when the second draft of the law was sent for “legal review” it was “torn apart.” She said, “We were told that we could pass it,” but it would leave the town open to legal challenges.

She also said that just before she, fellow board member Vance Pitkin and Supervisor Donal Collins took office in January they were told that a group with “financial means” was planning to sue the town over STRs and that they were advised to pass STR regulations quickly.

When residents asked if a suit had been filed against the town, the board members said no.

As for the current proposal, Ms. Mesick said, as she has at other meetings, that having some regulation gets control of the STR situation in the town. “Until we come up with another way, this is the best that we have,” she said.

Residents were concerned that the new proposed regulations include a definition of “commercial and wedding and party event venues,” which says that these venues are “homes, short-term rentals and or properties that host commercial events and that are not considered mass gatherings as defined in the Chatham Zoning Law. STR properties that are used as commercial wedding or commercial party event venues shall require a Special Use Permit.”

Residents felt that this could open up the definition of an STR and allow for event commercial spaces in all zones of the town except for the hamlet zones of H1 and H2. A few audience members asked for the definition to be removed for the proposed law. North Chatham resident Rick Werwaiss said that this wording could allow commercial businesses “in the back door.”

SSTRs (Standard Short-Term Rentals) as defined in the proposed law would not need a special use permit but would need a permit from the Town Code Enforcement Office. SSTRs would be allowed in any zones of the town and are defined as “the rental of a dwelling, dwelling unit or other establishment to a visitor for a period of less than 30 days.” Ms. Mesick stressed that a permit can be revoked if there are code violations. The proposed law says, “Failure to comply with the Town Code may result in the forfeiture of the SSTR permit.” Ms. Mesick also stressed that permits are only issued a year at a time.

Mr. Corsun said he felt the $50 fee for the permit in the proposed law was too low. Other’s suggested amounts ranging from $115 to $250. Residents also had concerns with the permit being issued with no inspection of the property.

Many residents voiced concerns about having STRs where owners are not living on the property or in the town.

The law does not say the owner of the STR must be a resident of the town. There is a section of the proposals that would require STR owners to have a “contact person” who lives no more than 20 miles from the property and “shall be available for the purpose of responding to complaints.” There was concern that not having a residency requirement would allow investment properties in the town.

“My biggest fear is having a ghost owner,” said one Old Chatham resident.

Ms. Mesick said she was told there were legal issues with having a residency requirement for the owner, though Councilman John Wapner said there are laws in other municipalities that include this requirement and they have not been challenged in court.

“The majority of short-term rental owners love their homes and love Chatham,” said resident Laurie Sherman-Graff.

Other residents had concerns about the removal of a limit on guests that can stay. Residents in Old Chatham talked about traffic on their road. There was concern about enforcement, especially with the commercial wedding or party venues.

The proposed law suggests a “good neighbor statement” be made available to guests that shall “contain pertinent information that will help SSTR visitors understand the house and property they are renting.” Mr. Corsun said he would like to see that statement drafted by the town for consistency.

One resident asked about a restriction on the number of days a year a property owner could rent out an STR, which was in a draft of a proposed zoning law drafted by the previous board. Ms. Mesick said that that draft, which was written before she was on the board, “was wildly unpopular.”

When asked about the plan for the current proposals, Mr. Corsun said it was his understanding that a majority of the board is interested in moving forward with adoption of the law.

The proposal needs to be reviewed by the county Planning Board. The Town Board has already passed one part of the state mandated environmental review. Board members will also need to pass the second part of that review, which would say that the changes to the zoning law would not have a negative impact on the environment. Once that is done the Town Board must hold a public hearing before voting on the law.

The next regular Town Board meeting will be Thursday, March 19 at 6:30 p.m. at Town Hall.

To contact reporter Emilia Teasdale email

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