Airbnb Brings Challenge to Zoning in the Rivertowns

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by Alexander Roberts

Map of 11 room rates from January 5-7, 2018

The rivertowns have some of the strictest zoning policies in the nation, designed to ensure that land use is tightly controlled. Yet today some homeowners are openly violating zoning laws in Irvington, Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow, advertising on the Internet site Airbnb, transforming their single-family houses, apartments and condominiums into illegal hotels and boarding houses.

A recent search on Airbnb for a weekend getaway rental in Tarrytown from January 5-7, 2018 produced 11 results (see picture).

“Victorian elegance in a peaceful setting,” read the ad on Airbnb for a private room at $140 per night.

“Historic Sleepy Hollow,” read another Airbnb ad for a private room in the village for $117.

And still another, at $110 per night, “Charming Tarrytown along the Majestic Hudson!”

According to Airdna, which tracks Airbnb market activity, there are 20 active rentals in Tarrytown, with an occupancy rate of 80% and average daily rate of $173. Growth has exploded at an annual rate of 52% since 2011.

None of the listings for rooms is currently legal under the zoning codes of the rivertowns. Chapter 305 of the Tarrytown Code states, “The terms ‘dwelling,’ ‘one-family dwelling,’ ‘two-family dwelling,’ ‘multifamily dwelling’ or ‘dwelling group’ shall not be deemed to include a rooming house, hotel, motel, tourist home, automobile court or other accommodations used for transient occupancy.’”

But just as Uber has forced change in the ride-hailing industry, Airbnb has sent Irvington, Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow scrambling to deal with a new reality.

According to Tarrytown Building Inspector Dan Pennella, those who advertise rooms in private dwellings on Airbnb risk prosecution in Village Court, including fines of up to $250 per day or imprisonment. However, offering a house or apartment on Airbnb is legal, he explained, so long as the entire dwelling is rented out and the homeowner or lessor still maintains it as their primary residence.

In November 2016, Tarrytown issued several written warnings to homeowners demanding they remove listings on Airbnb, citing a violation of local zoning. Ben Sands received one of those notices, after several months of having a spare guest room rented constantly on Airbnb to rave reviews.

“Everybody wants to visit the rivertowns,” said Sands. “We had a New York Times editor, Old Croton Aqueduct Trail hikers, participants at a Stone Barns conference, and other tourists. They almost never came with cars, walked everywhere, shopped in the stores and ate in the downtown restaurants.”

Tarrytown and Irvington study possible regulation

Sands withdrew his listing but remains active on a village subcommittee considering whether Tarrytown zoning should be changed to allow residents to rent rooms in their homes. Included on the subcommittee are Tarrytown Mayor Drew Fixell and a representative of the Comprehensive Plan Update Committee. Allowing Airbnb rentals could enhance revenues to the village if room rentals became subject to the village’s three percent hotel tax. Sands said that while Tarrytown has enforced the law against transient room rentals, Fixell said it’s because of complaints that renters are being contacted.

Under a provision aimed mostly at providing housing for students, it is currently legal in Irvington to rent out one room in a single-family home. To a limited extent, that would cover some Airbnb rentals. Meanwhile, the village’s Comprehensive Planning Committee is considering an amendment to the village’s Zoning Code that would allow more extensive rental opportunities – including Airbnbs – as a way of offsetting property tax increases brought about by the recent Greenburgh reassessment.

Sleepy Hollow Mayor Ken Wray said there have been no complaints in his community, and the village doesn’t pursue Airbnb advertisers.

Tarrytown’s village administrator, Richard Slingerland, however, said the village must examine all the ramifications of legalization for local neighborhoods, impact on parking, and potential removal of apartments from the rental market to service tourists.

“A decision on whether to legalize use of Airbnb will not happen immediately,” he said, “but it’s definitely something we will look at in the next three to six months.”

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