By RICK REMSNYDER
A local attorney took the Town of Shawangunk to task for hauling a property owner into court for allegedly operating a short-term rental in violation of the town’s zoning laws.
Dyer Halpern, an attorney who is the owner of an Airbnb in the Town of Shawangunk himself, represented another unnamed corporation that owns the property before Town Judge Kevin Hunt on Dec. 1.
Acting on what he said were numerous complaints from neighbors that the business was operating an Airbnb, Town building inspector/code enforcement officer Robert Wollner said he began issuing warnings to the owner that the business was violating the town’s zoning laws as early as April 2022.
Wollner said after the property owner ignored repeated warnings, he issued a notice of violation that required an appearance in town court.
“It was observed that they were still listed on the Airbnb website,” Wollner said. “You could have booked a date anytime.”
Wollner said it was the first time he had issued a notice of violation to a property owner that he thought was operating as a short-term rental property.
The appearance before Hunt by the property owner was adjourned earlier in the day just hours before the regularly scheduled December 1 Town Board meeting.
Halpern told the Wallkill Valley Times that the Town of Shawangunk could be in for a long legal fight if it pursues the complaint against his client.
“He (Wollner) didn’t even realize it was a criminal prosecution,” Halpern said. “I think it’s a ridiculous way to proceed on an issue that clearly is still up for debate whether they should be allowed or not.”
Halpern said the criminal complaint stated that the owner of the property was not allowed to engage in any activity that is not permitted within the agricultural district.
“But one of the activities that is permitted is to have a residential property (within the district), so I don’t get how they’re saying that my client’s not having a residential property,” Halpern said. “He certainly is. He’s just allegedly renting it out as well.”
Halpern told the Town Board that he was surprised by the town’s actions.
“This town has taken upon itself to start arresting its citizens, which as a prosecutor for 14 years I kind of find offensive,” he said. “I think it’s something that the town shouldn’t engage in unless its citizens are doing something really criminal. To file a criminal complaint against somebody who is doing nothing more allegedly than renting out his house to people who come to visit this town and spend money in its stores and help spur its economy and you’re arresting them for it.”
Halpern also criticized the town for not having all of its zoning laws available to the public in one place.
“I can not go online and read the town’s zoning law,” Halpern said. “I cannot go to your (Town) Clerk’s office. I can not go to the library. I can go nowhere to see your zoning law. A FOIL request for your consolidated zoning law resulted in a response of: ‘It doesn’t exist.’ So I’m curious how the town law justifies going around arresting corporations for allegedly renting out their buildings when you won’t even take the time to put your zoning law in one place.”
Councilman Robert Miller responded to Halpern’s comments with a question.
“Do you know if there’s any law that allows for Airbnbs in the Town of Shawangunk,” Miller asked.
“There’s nothing that prohibits Airbnbs in the Town of Shawangunk,” Halpern replied.
The Town of Shawangunk held several public hearings in February and March, seeking public input on a local law that would regulate the operation and location of short-term rentals. In the March hearing, the vast majority of those speaking on the issue said they were in favor of short-term rentals, hoping that they would bring tourists to the area who would spend money in local businesses.
Miller disputed the idea that short-term rentals generated any income for the town.
“Every time I hear an example, I hear of businesses and places not in our town,” Miller said. “I keep hearing about people going to the Town of Crawford and going to all the stores. Going to Hannaford’s and spending money and buying gas at Stewart’s. They’re not in our town.”
The board hasn’t taken any action on the proposed local law since those hearings.
Supervisor John Valk said the board has been “tossing back and forth” with various aspects of the local law regulating short-term rentals since the public hearings.
“That’s why we have an inactive one,” Valk said to Halpern. “You are correct there.”
“So meet us in the middle,” Halpern said. “You have a full group of owners who want nothing more than to work with you. But this isn’t the way to do it. Throwing people in front of criminal courts.”