SARANAC LAKE — As the village prepares for a public hearing on a draft short-term rental law, board members are still floating major changes to the law in their conversations, drawing concern from both supporters and opponents of regulations who are concerned certain trustees may be trying to sneak in changes at the very end.
Both supporters and opponents of regulations on STRs are putting out calls to action to people on their respective sides to attend the upcoming village board meeting on Monday and the subsequent public hearing.
The village board sent a draft of its STR law to the development board for comments and suggested changes in February in an effort to start bringing the legislation to the finish line. Residents in this community have spent countless hours discussing the possibility of the village regulating STRs over the past few years as neighboring communities like Lake Placid drafted their own regulations.
The development board sent its “menu of options” back to the village board in March, but discussion of the law stalled for a while as the village board turned its attention to its annual budget. After passing that budget on Monday, it returned its attention back to the STR law, adjusting the draft law to include some of the development board’s suggestions, but not others.
The law, as proposed, would require all STRs to have permits, it would cap the number of STRs allowed within the village, grandfather in existing STRs and require owners of new STRs to get permits from the development board. It would also create requirements for permits for new STRs and regulate STR management, with the goals of renter safety and preserving quality of life in neighborhoods.
Trustees are giving the law one more review and will vote on a resolution to call for a public hearing for May 22 at their next meeting on Monday. Both meetings will take place at 5:30 p.m. in the second-floor village board room at 39 Main St.
The draft of the local law can be read on the meeting agenda starting on page 18 at https://bit.ly/44tuXCc.
The grandfather clause
The volunteer-run development board has expressed concerns about language in the law that asks them to grandfather in existing STRs through special use permits. Some trustees want to require public hearings for neighbors to provide input on the rentals, too, which would allow the board to set conditions on the permit.
The dilemma with special use permits is that while they are the only method that requires a public hearing, they also give the most discretion to the development board to approve or deny a permit. Development board members felt “uneasy” with the language in the draft law that says the board “shall” approve these permits, rather than “may.”
While a New York Conference of Mayors attorney told the village it is “unusual” for a village board to tell the development board to approve all special use permits, it’s not outright impossible.
Village Mayor Jimmy Williams said their intent has always been to “grandfather” in existing units, so he feels they should stick to that since they promised it.
Trustee Kelly Brunette said her initial intent has changed and evolved with new feedback from constituents, especially with the development board’s feedback, and she wanted to reconsider the grandfather clause.
STR owner Chris Dorman spoke up after Brunette said this, saying that change would upset a lot of people.
“If you change that, it’s going to spark something completely off the wall,” Dorman said.
After the meeting, speaking with Trustee Rich Shapiro, Dorman told him the grandfather clause has been “the only thing that stopped (him) from getting a lawyer.”
STR owner Sophie Agostino said she felt Brunette had “flip-flopped” on this.
“I think (the grandfather clause is) part of how we’ve been having a reasonable discussion with the STR owners,” Shapiro said during the meeting. “We’ve been making a good-faith effort to take into account their needs. If we pulled that out now, it sort of destroys our credibility and is bad blood with them.”
Trustee Matt Scollin said a recent annual report showed that more than 95% of special use permits were granted.
“It’s not a trap,” Scollin said.
Stricter law requested
During public comment, Allen Kramer, an IT specialist at the Federal Corrections Institute at Ray Brook, asked the board to pass a stricter law than it has currently proposed. Though he is planning to open an STR in his home, himself, he said this law does not stop the housing crisis and he opposed the grandfathering in of current STRs.
He said he moved here three years ago and had a “horrible time” finding a decent place to live. He moved into a “horror show” of a house because it was the only place available.
He said these STRs represent dozens of single-family homes he could not move into when he was searching. He said these houses are meant for families and putting them to a different use endangers the village’s long-term future.
He asked the village to require STRs to be owner-occupied or for owners to be village residents, and to potentially set a limit of one STR per address.
“Is it strict?” Kramer asked. “Yes. But are other vacation destinations are doing it? Yes.”
Kramer said he has moved around a lot with the military and lived all over the country in 12 different states.
“This has been the most difficult place I’ve ever moved to,” Kramer said. “And it’s actually my favorite place I’ve lived.”
Kramer said he’s seen people resign from jobs at the prison before they’ve even started because they can’t find a place locally and don’t want to commute from an hour away.
“And these are good-paying jobs,” he added.
The village board is assuming they will be sued by STR owners after passing this law and that portions of the law will be brought to court. Several times, Scollin said “when we get sued” instead of “if.”
One of the main segments they expect to be contested is a requirement that new STR permits go to people who reside within village lines. This has been very controversial with STR owners, but is also one of the key parts of the law Williams and several trustees see benefiting the village.
Shapiro said the village attorney told them a lawsuit will be costly — $50,000 to $100,000 — and there is no guarantee they would win. He doubts the village will spend that money and said they should drop the requirement before getting sued.
Scollin said they should cross that bridge when they get to it and consider how much it would cost, and if the law would hold up in court.
Neighboring Lake Placid and North Elba were sued by STR owners over their first joint STR law — which has since been updated — but that suit was dismissed in court last year.
Williams said this residency requirement is one of the most important parts of the law in his mind, because it ensures village residents profit from STRs instead of money going out of town. He also said they made a promise to regulation supporters to do this.
“It will drive the prices of homes up, by allowing people from other states and areas of New York to own our properties,” Williams said. “Local ownership matters.”
Shapiro agreed with that sentiment but said this law will slow the number of new STRs in the village. Williams said this is a long-term solution to slowly return buildings to local ownership over the coming decades.
And if someone wants to open new STRs in the village, Williams said “Saranac Lake is a great place to live,” and they should move here then. But there is a loophole.
“The alternative is, these guys can change their voter registration to one of their Airbnbs just like you do for yours and seem to be mayor,” Shapiro said.
When Williams ran for mayor last year there was conversation about how his family home is on Kiwassa Way, outside the village, but his voting address is at 79 Main St., at an apartment above T.F. Finnigans, which he stays at when it’s convenient and which he rents as an STR when he is not there.
At the time, he pointed out that in 2008, the state Supreme Court ruled that people can have two residences and select which one they vote from.
Village resident David Lynch wrote in the Facebook group “The real Saranac Lake” that he found Shapiro’s support of removing the residency requirement from the STR law if the village gets sued “alarming.”
“In my view, having sat through the whole meeting, it felt like a not so subtle suggestion to STR owners to sue the village,” Lynch wrote. “It would be a real shame if significant parts of this proposed law were removed at the last minute.”
STR owners who live in the communities around Saranac Lake, like Dorman, say they consider themselves locals. Dorman said while he doesn’t like the law on a whole, the residency requirement is the biggest issue in the law for him.
Development board edits
The village board unanimously agreed to repeal and replace its current definition of a “dwelling unit” in the zoning code with the one in the draft STR law.
The board is proposing to remove language about quiet hours for STRs, and trustees said they will create a village-wide noise ordinance in the near future setting quiet hours for all properties. Williams said the law is vague now; it only says noise should be low at “reasonable hours.”
Board members did not see a reason to require applicants to submit proof of an S corporation or LLC when applying for an STR permit, since these are not required for other village permits. The felt the same way about requiring proof of payment of water/sewer bills and taxes.
They also didn’t see a reason to require proof of liability insurance, since they don’t require it of anyone else and they just expect all renters to have it.
“It’d be stupid not to have it,” Shapiro said.
Trustees also said that insurance requirement could actually open the village up to a lawsuit if something does happen and the insurance has expired.
The board wants to require GFI outlets in kitchens and bathrooms — anywhere with water — since this is required in the state building code. But they decided not to require exit signs, backup and wayfinding lights.
The village board meets again on Monday at 5:30 p.m.
A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed information from the village attorney to a NYCOM attorney.
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