CAYUGA HEIGHTS, N.Y. — Tightening property use laws in Cayuga Heights have incited anger among residents and property owners in Ithaca’s patrician suburb.

Zoning changes, to be given a public hearing tonight at 7 PM at Marcham Hall before going up for vote, call for much tighter restrictions on renters and home businesses. The village will also codify use of Airbnb and short-term rentals, which are illegal but implicitly overlooked (“don’t ask, don’t tell”) for major events such as college graduation weekend.

Under the new law, short-term rentals (less than 30 days) would be limited to no more than 14 nights per year, and only after multiple sets of paperwork have been filed with the county and village for each stay. While the new code makes Airbnb legal, the trade-off is that it imposes multiple regulatory actions and explicitly limits its use.

Several other changes are designed to discourage renters from moving into Cayuga Heights, and homeowners from renting out or operating home businesses. No unrelated occupants would be allowed in two-unit structures – say you live in a two-family home and have an occupied accessory apartment, and want to have a housemate; that would become illegal. Only two unrelated occupants would be allowed to live with a family, down from the current three. A rental property could have no more than three unrelated residents per unit, down from the current four. Home occupations would be reduced in allowed space and the hiring of employees would be curtailed.

Members of the Tompkins County Landlords Association (TCLA) have complained that the village has forbidden the public to speak at previous meetings, used dense language in the law to confuse the general public, and has failed to promote tonight’s public hearing. The village counters TCLA’s claims, but has acknowledged concerns that some Airbnb users are afraid to speak at meetings and implicate themselves. Cayuga Heights village officials say that at the moment, they are only going after those whose neighbors file complaints. A request for comment to the village zoning officer was not returned because the zoning officer was on vacation until today. A request for comment to the mayor was not returned in time for publication.

County Principal Planner and Tourism Program Director Tom Knipe says that it’s up to each community to set its own rules on regulating a service like Airbnb. “The county’s role is to collect taxes, we’ve worked to qualify the room tax law, local rooms are subject to room tax. It is up to each municipality, each town, village and city to look at their local regulations, like zoning, and determine what they say about short-term rentals, and look at regulations to address any concerns that they have.”

Since the definitions on short-term rentals and occupancy are vague in most zoning codes, communities are presented with the task of drawing up regulations based on their own definitions and interpretations. Across the state, regulations vary widely. Locally, the town of Ithaca is also looking at Airbnb regulation, though unlike Cayuga Heights,  the service is technically permitted for use by town residents because it’s an undefined property use.

According to a previous study by Airbnb, 2.5 percent of visitors to Tompkins County in 2015-16 stayed with an Airbnb host, generating 22,400 room stays and $3.2 million in revenue among about 550 local hosts, about $5,818 per host residence. Knipe that use of the service has continued to grow in recent months.

Proponents of the online hosting service for lodging have extolled its opportunity for side income from unused accessory apartments and guest bedrooms; opposition says it harms the local hotel and formal bed and breakfast industries, and that guests create traffic, noise, trash and unruly behavior in surrounding residential neighborhoods. Concerns have also been raised about impacts to affordable housing by landlords who prefer to rent units to Airbnb users instead of long-term renters. The service could be compared in impact to Uber and Lyft’s effects the taxi industry – a “market disruptor” that creates a set of opportunities, but can also create risk or facilitate undesirable impacts if users are not properly vetted.

Tompkins County was the first county in the state to create an in-state tax agreement, where San Francisco-based Airbnb charges users an additional fee that it then turned over to the county as a “room tax”, just as hotels have to charge their guests. The 3% room tax was originally remitted to the county every three months, but more recently they’ve been remitted monthly.

Correction: Airbnb in Ithaca town is not legally permitted, but it is technically permitted as it’s no longer defined in the town’s zoning code, due to changes in the state’s 2016 housing code. Further, the new village code would reduce residency from four to three -unrelated- persons. The Voice regrets the error.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.