ITHACA, N.Y. — It’s not exactly a secret that short-term rentals in and around Tompkins County have been the source of considerable debate in recent years. The Airbnbs, VRBOs and so forth have effectively replaced the traditional word-of-mouth system for weekend or weekly home rentals, often in the summer months or around graduation season.

However, the old system of short-term rentals was generally pretty limited, beyond “friend of a friend”, the occasional newspaper posting, or in the past couple decades, Craigslist. As with other “sharing economy” technology-based services like Indeed for jobs and Uber for taxis, Airbnb and its brethren have brought the system of short-term rentals to the masses – for better or worse, depending on the person you ask.

Before we turn to the latest property use controversy, credit where credit’s due—Tompkins Weekly’s Jessica Wickham has a fantastic write-up about the issue, to which this piece can only hope to complement. Polite suggestion, read them both.

Anyway, for vacationers or for those who snowbird somewhere else in their retirement, it’s a lucrative opportunity to put your house up for rent for a weekend or two without the hassle of long-term commitments. Allowing their home to host a family for graduation weekend while they briefly head elsewhere could very well pay for a month of their mortgage.

On the other hand, there are also wealthier property owners who buy multiple houses in more desirable neighborhoods just to use as short-term rentals. Not only does this take housing off the for-sale and long-term rental markets, in some cases the guests make life miserable for permanent residents living next door – they come to party, while everyone else around them is there to live their normal lives.

It’s this dilemma that the town of Ithaca is facing as it’s crafting its short-term rental legislation, STRs for short. Here, short-term rentals (STRs) include properties rented for less than 30 days. According to Tompkins County, there are about 200 STRs known to be operating in the town of Ithaca.

“Over the years we’ve gotten complaints about folks who have been doing STRs in certain areas of the town. A few years ago we started to hear about people who were buying up houses in the town specifically to do STRs. We wanted to stop that practice, we wanted to keep units available to long-term residents in the town, and we wanted to put some regulations in place,” said Bill Goodman, Deputy Town Supervisor for the town of Ithaca.

As proposed, there are a number of new or expanded requirements in order to operate a STR in the town of Ithaca. STRs can only take place in a dwelling unit that is the principal residence of the host, or in an adjacent tax parcel owned by the host. STR hosts must have an operating permit for hosted (meaning that the property owner is on site) and unhosted (that property owner is away) stays, and the operating permit application must specify whether a unit will be used for hosted or unhosted stays.

In addition, hosts must also provide enough driveway parking spaces and notify the Code Enforcement Department each time they rent a unit for an unhosted short-term rental stay; and that hosts provide Code Enforcement, renters and adjacent properties with the name and contact information of a local individual available 24/7 during the time of an unhosted stay, should the need to contact someone arise.

Some aspects of the new legislation are more controversial than others. For example, exceptions apply to STRs within the Lakefront Residential Zone adjacent to Cayuga Lake. STRs in that zone are exempt from the primary residence rule and the driveway rule, though Lakefront Residential Zone STRs will still have to comply with reporting and operating permit regulations.

The biggest issue seems to be that the legislation also puts limitations on the number of days allowed for short-term rental use, including a limit of 29 days a year for unhosted STRs outside of the Lakefront Residential Zone, with some exceptions, and a limit of 245 days a year for unhosted STRs within the Lakefront Residential Zone. There are no established limits for hosted STRs.

Pushback against the legislation has been fierce. The Ithaca Board of Realtors has created a petition with more than 140 signees protesting the legislation as written. Numerous letters decrying the proposes legislation have been submitted to the town and to local news organizations.

No one has an issue with stopping the out-of-town buyers who come here just to basically turn Ithaca homes into non-stop Airbnb rentals. The issue lies with those who use it to supplement their incomes, who feel like collateral damage in the efforts to rein in the problem. Plus, some have accused the town of an unsavory air of classism by allowing the lakeshore, which has some of the most expensive homes in the county, to be rented out with looser restrictions.

Craig Dunham and Megan Shay are retirees who have owned a house in the town since 1995, and in more recent years spend the winters down in Florida. They rent out about 80-100 days per year, which the town’s 29-day cap would greatly diminish.

“We believe that the current legislation is not an effective solution and that it will cause unnecessary hardships…Noise and nuisance ordinances already exist so why not enforce them rather than adding more burdensome regulations which will be
more costly to enforce than existing laws?” said Dunham. “In our case, the proposed legislation would require us to leave our Ithaca home unrented when we are gone, which reduces Ithaca housing availability rather than helping it. If the key issue is stopping the purchase of housing for the sole purpose of Short Term Rentals, then we suggest a much simpler, narrower and less costly to administer regulation to address that.”

Goodman is sympathetic, but was not inclined to spend any further time on the STR legislation. “We got started on this about four and a half years ago. We’ve had more opportunities for public input and public interest on this law than any other law that we’ve done in the past fourteen years since I’ve been on the town board.”

“We were aware of the concerns, we’ve had a number of meetings, at least ten committee meetings a year for the last few years, an ad-hoc committee just to deal with this. We had numerous members of the public who would attend those meetings, which is very unusual. We had a number of public comment periods, a lot of comments. We had one meeting where we had probably 25 people and we actually sat down around a big table, committee members and neighbors who are concerned about STRs, and hosts, and we worked to talk through what might work, which is unusual for crafting legislation. We’ve engaged with the public a lot over the past 3-4 years, much more than we have with any other law,” said Goodman.

On the lakeshore rental issue, Goodman acknowledged that there was a lot of debate and even some discomfort with the proposal as it is – in fact, he expected a couple of his colleagues would likely vote against the legislation because it was too lenient against lakeshore short-term home rentals. However, he disagreed, and thought the proposed legislation struck a good balance.

“Speaking personally, that’s the main reason I’m supportive of a longer (245-day) time frame. Being on the lake is a unique resource, it is a way for folks who can’t afford to own a second home on the lake to get to spend a week or two renting a home by the lake. When people talk about disparate treatment, that’s basically what zoning is, that’s basically what the town of Ithaca is. Zoning decides what areas you can do certain things, that’s just the whole basis of zoning in my mind. It’s to allow other people to have more access to the lake,” said Goodman.

“Some people say it’s just to benefit those who are wealthy enough to live on the lake, but this allows some less wealthy people to have homes on the lake and rent them out some of the time, vs. those who buy second homes and can afford to leave it empty. I see there are competing arguments, but I’m comfortable with the disparate number of days.”

The town does plan to host another Public Hearing on December 29th at 11 AM, but that’s not really to entertain alternative proposals; the effective dates in the law had to be updated to reflect the slower-than-expected timeframe for approval into law. As planned, everything would shift three months forward in time. If enacted, the law takes effect April 1, 2022. People will need to apply for permits in order to host a short-term rental by July 1, and then any contracts in place wouldn’t count to the initial limit on STR days if the contracts are in place by Oct. 1.

As noted in Tompkins Weekly, other county and area officials appreciate the effort the town is putting in. However, it’s clear that there is no one set of regulations that will please everyone, whether too lenient or too restrictive. For some folks, it’s a welcome end to absentee property owners. For others, the new regulations will be an immense burden.

“We have had opportunities for so much public input over the past few years, we knew these arguments would be coming and we knew some people might still not be aware until the very end. But the arguments they’ve brought up are arguments we’ve heard from the public, and considered already over the past few years,” said Goodman.

“I’m less concerned about soothing people’s concerns and more in striking a balance. There are valid concerns on both sides of the issue. We’ve heard passionately from people who want more restrictive regulations, and passionately from people who don’t want any regulations. My role is to figure out a reasonable middle ground in striking a balance between the extremes.”

Brian Crandall

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