By Mara Certic
Like all municipalities on the South Fork, contending with overcrowding, parking and noise from share houses or illegal short-term rentals in the Sag Harbor is a challenge. But according to village attorney Denise Schoen it is not a challenge the village will take lightly this summer.
Rental-by-owner websites such as VRBO, AirBnB and HomeAway have hundreds of houses to rent in Sag Harbor Village; many of which offer rentals for very short periods of time and claim to offer sleeping arrangements for a worrying number of people, according to Ms. Schoen.
In the village, it is illegal to rent a home in short-term capacity, Ms. Schoen said this week. Although there is no specific provision defining the minimum length of stay allowed for a renter, the occupancy of houses in the village must be “permanent, or tantamount to permanent,” according to the village code.
“If we’re able to prove by presenting enough facts to a judge that they’re renting the house on a short-term basis, they are going to automatically fall outside the permitted use of the zone,” Ms. Schoen said.
Ms. Schoen said those who rent their houses for the full summer season do not have to worry that they are operating outside the law. “Obviously, Sag Harbor is a resort community,” she said. But short-term rentals, she added, can be very disruptive within a community.
“There’s no control over quality-of-life issues for neighbors, ” said Ms. Schoen, noting anonymous complaints have already been logged with the village about these kinds of rentals.
This week, of the 183 houses advertised on one rent-by-owner website, only 25 of them had a minimum rental period of 30 days or more— with many offering a two-night minimum stay during certain parts of the season.
East Hampton and Southampton Towns both have specific rental provisions in their codes. Southampton does not allow rentals for a period of less than 14 days. The law in East Hampton is slightly different, stating that a single-family residence may only be rented out for a period shorter than 14 days three times within a six-month period.
Ms. Schoen said that believes that adopting a specific rental law in Sag Harbor might be a way to buck the disturbing rental trend.
A provision in the village code allows for private homes to run bed-and-breakfasts within Sag Harbor’s residential zones if a permit is issued by the village planning board. In those cases there are many restrictions, such as a limit of four guests at one time, and a two-night maximum stay.
However, few of the two-or three-night rentals listed on rent-by owner websites fell under the B&B criteria. One house “two minutes from the center of town” charges more than $1,000 a night throughout the summer season and claims to sleep 13, despite stating that it has only three bedrooms.
Ms. Schoen said she is most concerned about overcrowding in the smaller houses within the central village area. Not only is this a matter of legality and quality-of-life, but there are also health and safety concerns.
A particularly worrying discovery on these rental websites is that quite a few of the houses are advertised as having cottages. “How many of those cottages are legal? And if they’re not legal, I’m even more concerned about the health and safety issues because that means they don’t have a C of O for sleeping,” she said.
The fear is that the detached structures might not have fire protection; the “cottages” are “built differently than other houses; they burn faster,” said Ms. Schoen, who has been a volunteer with the Sag Harbor Ambulance Corps for over a decade. The worry in a village as small as this one is that a fire on one property could quickly spread to another.
Although no official complaints have been logged with the village clerk in the last year, more than one anonymous grievance has been made to officials about rentals causing garbage, parking and noise problems.
“It was very hard for [these neighbors] to enjoy their backyards anymore because it was just constant parties because it was a different group of people every week,” Ms. Schoen said.
Building Inspector Tim Platt has had some success writing letters and stopping illegal “party rentals” in the summer season, when houses are rented out for one-night only for blowout celebrations, like prom. When a homeowner is cited by the village for an illegal rental, their only recourse to fight the charge is in Sag Harbor Village Justice Court.
The part-time code enforcement officer in the summer has focused more in the past on problems of overcrowdings in the business district. Ms. Schoen said that the lack of this resource might be why “the word isn’t out there that there’s a possibility you could be cited; there’s no fear on anyone’s part.”
Ms. Schoen urged residents to inform the building department if they are concerned that illegal, or dangerous, rentals are going in Sag Harbor. “We will take complaints very seriously,” she said. “So if a neighbor sees a situation where a short-term rental is taking place, especially in overcrowding situations, they should call down to village hall, to the building department, and we’ll check it out.