ITHACA, NY -- The Ithaca Town Board officially passed short-term rental legislation on Dec. 29, with all board members voting in favor except for Tee-Ann Hunter. The board held another public hearing that morning after deciding to push the effective date of the legislation (and all subsequent dates within) back three months to April 1 at the prior public hearing on Dec. 13.
Despite the morning public hearing on a workday, there were still quite a few virtual attendees who showed up to comment publicly on the legislation. Craig Dunham, who spoke at the public hearing two weeks prior, said he was “dismayed by the lack of empathy” from the board, and said he believes the group had reached groupthink and decision fatigue and were “no longer thinking rationally” about the legislation.
Another resident said she owns a lakefront home and rented it out 363 days last year; the new legislation will limit short-term rentals in lakefront properties to 245 days per year.
“If we’re limited to 245 days the property will go vacant which serves no purpose,” she said. “And we’ll probably raise the prices so we can maximize the 245 days we get. It serves no purpose for this town.”
She added there’s not enough leeway for the Board of Zoning Appeals to “consider situations that are positive for the town and not causing harm.”
However, two of the main issues brought up by residents and addressed by the board were amending the legislation in the future, and snowbirds — retired folks who spend the winters somewhere warm down south and the summers back in Ithaca.
At the previous public hearing, board members noted the ability to amend the law in the future if for some reason issues arose from it. However, this didn’t sit right with some residents. One resident said she was “shocked the notion of passing this with the intention of changing or tweaking it later was even considered.”
Resident Adam Schaye echoed this sentiment.
“I think that’s a sham of a way to do legislation, and know it’s in bad will but to pass it anyway for the stated reason that you’ve been working on it for too long,” he said. “To acknowledge you know it’s a flawed bill and you’re going to amend it later is the wrong way to do legislation.”
However, board member Rich DePaolo said it’s not the board’s intent to modify the law, but they do want to recognize there is the possibility that it could be changed in the event of unforeseen consequences.
“That’s the legislative process, as imperfect as it is,” he said.
The snowbird issue had been brought up by various retirees at this public hearing and the one prior. The issue is that the law will require homeowners to reside in the home they intend to use for short-term rentals for at least 185 days per year, a threshold many snowbirds don’t meet. While board members were sympathetic to the situation, Deputy Town Supervisor Bill Goodman said it was something they’ve been talking about for three years and that ultimately, his reasons for wanting the law outweigh those concerns.
“The idea of retired people who don’t live here but want to keep a home here isn’t new to us,” he said. “Again, this goes back to the nature of the legislation.”
He said there are a handful of reasons the board has taken up this legislation, with the main ones being protecting long-term housing stock in town, the neighborhood quality of life, and the safety of units and tourists visiting.
“For this particular issue of [snowbirds] wanting to keep their homes here, housing for long-term takes priority. So that’s where I’m able to draw my line,” Goodman said. “If someone is retired and moved out of the town of Ithaca, I’m willing to draw the line there and say ‘no, sorry, we’re not going to use what used to be your primary residence just for short-term rentals.’”
Goodman noted there was nothing stopping those folks from using those homes for long-term rentals or academic-year rentals so that the house was still empty for the summer.
“That’s where I’m drawing my line personally,” he said. “When we’re dealing with a complicated issue, each of us gets to decide which is of primary importance and where we draw our lines. And that’s the way legislation works.”
Board member Pam Bleiwas echoed that sentiment and said that everyone in town has a different way they want to write the legislation.
“You can’t have 20,000 versions of this bill to satisfy every single person,” she said.
She noted that protecting the long-term housing stock is her primary reason for passing the law, which the board believes the legislation will accomplish by preventing outside corporations from buying up housing stock to use primarily for short-term rentals.
Ultimately, the board passed the legislation, emphasizing the importance of getting regulations on the books. Only Hunter voted against the bill, which she has repeatedly said has equity issues due to lakefront homeowners getting so many more days for short-term rentals than other residents.
“I know it’s taken a long time, but I think we have some problems, and the community has brought them to our attention, and out of respect to the people we’re supposed to be serving we should take those comments seriously,” she said.