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August 23, 2019

6/25/2019 7:30:00 AM
County finalizes short-term rental ordinance
Ability to enforce the code remains a challenge

Richard Moore
Investigative Reporter

After months and months of work, the Oneida County Board of Supervisors has passed regulations for short-term rentals, an ordinance that more than anything aims to regulate rentals of less than 30 days in single-family residential neighborhoods.

In the past, as many counties and municipalities did, Oneida County banned rentals of 30 consecutive days or less in single-family neighborhoods. However, the state prohibited such bans in the 2017-19 state budget, specifically, the new right-to-rent law prohibits local governments from banning the rental of a residential dwelling for seven days or more.

However, local governments can require permits and impose other regulations, so long as they are not so restrictive as to effectively ban short-term rentals. For example, local governments can cap the rental of such dwellings at 180 days out of any 365-day period.

Oneida County's tourist rooming housing ordinance lays out the county's regulations. It's a comprehensive ordinance that applies county-wide. Among other things, the ordinance bans rentals of six consecutive days or less in certain zoning districts, including single-family residential zoning, forestry districts 1B and 1C, manufacturing/industrial, and rural residential, and establishes an administrative review permit process for a tourist rooming house permit.

The code also requires off-street parking of 1.1 spaces for each bedroom, and no recreational vehicles, campers, tents, or other temporary lodging arrangements are allowed on-site.

In addition, maximum occupancy of a short-term rental is limited to the number of occupants for which a dwelling's septic system was designed, or to the number of occupants authorized by a state tourist rooming house license, whichever is less.

The ordinance also requires a short-term rental to have a resident agent - an adult living within 25 miles of the rental's location (or a corporate entity with offices within 25 miles) who is authorized to receive service of notice that the rental is violating the provisions of the ordinance and to allow the county to enter the property for inspection and enforcement.

Licensed motels and hotels and resorts, bed and breakfast establishments, and private boarding and rooming houses not accommodating tourists are exempt from the new ordinance.

Questions of enforcement

During discussion, supervisor Bob Mott raised various questions about the resident agent's role, handling complaints, and generally enforcing the ordinance.

For example, Mott wanted to know how a neighbor who wants to make a complaint would know who the resident agent is, for example, if there was an out-of-control party at a short-term rental or some other problem arising.

"How does the neighbor know who to call, and how are complaints handled by that resident agent?" Mott asked.

County zoning director Karl Jennrich said a resident agent was added to the ordinance because other municipalities had dealt with the same type of rental situations, and found people would try to contact the property owner, only to find out that the property owner wasn't around.

"These were just absentee owners who owned a piece of property and were just renting it out," Jennrich said. "The committee, after looking at other ordinances, felt it would be appropriate to have a resident agent. ...What the committee was looking for, they wanted a body to contact if there was a problem."

If there was a complaint, Jennrich said, he assumed the town would get the call first.

"And they are going to call me, or the county will get the call," he said. "Some neighbors do try to contact the owners of the property and usually that doesn't work out and that's why they wanted a resident agent, a warm body to talk to."

Jennrich said the inclusion of a resident agent was one of the more controversial provisions of the proposed ordinance.

"Various businesses that rent out these types of facilities did not want to have to have a resident agent within 25 miles due to the fact that it limited their ability to rent out some of these structures," he said.

Jennrich said in at least one case in the county, the resident agent was a local person who housecleaned the dwelling.

"But we have someone we can actually contact if there is a complaint, whether it be noise or garbage or whatever the complaint is about," he said.

Mott said the big question he had was about enforcement.

"It (the ordinance) talks about how many occupants are supposed to be there," he said. "You have a three-bedroom place rated for six people, whatever, and you have a dozen people coming in and using it on the weekend or during the week. Who enforces all this? Who makes the decision if that is actually happening?"

Jennrich said the process would be the same as the county now follows.

"We get the complaint, and we try to deal with it the best we can," he said. "That's the best answer I can give you. For example, we have had people take pictures of license plates at rentals showing different people every weekend. Once I get that information, I can talk to counsel and see whether we have a case to issue citations or send enforcement letters, but that provision is going to be difficult to enforce. The burden is on Oneida County."

The question of complaints arising on weekends - when county zoning officials would not be available - arose, and Jennrich suggested law enforcement or town officials would get weekend complaints and try to handle them.

"But if there are a continual amount of complaints, because they have an administrative review permit, we have the ability to amend, suspend, or revoke that permit," he said.

Supervisor Ted Cushing, who is the long-time town chairman of Hazelhurst, said, as the town chairman, he usually fields the complaints.

"I've been the town chair for 21 years, and the complaints come directly to the town chairman," Cushing said.

As far as getting in touch with a resident agent for a complaint, or in an emergency problem situation, Cushing said the towns have a copy of the administrative review permits with the resident agents' phone numbers.

Supervisor Steve Schreier wondered if it would be wiser to have a requirement that the neighbors of a tourist rooming house be provided with resident agent contact information.

"It sounds like they are just contacting the town chairman and then the town chairman is contacting you and it just seems like it would be easier for them to know who this agent is and contact them directly if that's their responsibility to react to these situations," Schreier said.

Jennrich said that was an idea the committee could take up, either as a policy or ordinance amendment.

Supervisor Bob Metropulos wondered if the current zoning staff could handle a heavier workload related to the new ordinance, or if additional personnel was being pursued.

"I'm a realist," Jennrich said. " ... I do not see the department adding additional positions. We have to handle them with what we have."

Walworth County did add additional staff because of its tourist rooming house ordinance, Jennrich said, but he said the Oneida County board had given the zoning department an additional staff person two years ago, and the department was making good use of it.

Schreier also wondered if people might try to evade the ordinance through the use of the exemption for bed and breakfast establishments.

"I would think that the easiest loophole for somebody in here would be to put a box of cereal on the counter and a jug of milk in the refrigerator, call it a bed and breakfast, and you're get to go," he said. "Because how are you going to know if someone is residing there as a proprietor of the business?"

Schreier said he had stayed at many bed and breakfasts, and many times there was no one there, with the proprietors going away in the early evening and coming back the next morning.

"My understanding is that a bed and breakfast specifically requires that that agent reside there on the property," he said. "But how would you even begin to enforce that if someone said, 'I just want to get around this ordinance, so I will say I'm serving breakfast.'"

Theoretically, Jennrich answered, someone could do that.

"But right now in our ordinance in single-family residential we do allow bed and breakfasts either as an administrative review permit or a conditional use permit and they are supposed to be owner-occupied," he said. "In my opinion, the sanitarians/public health department have more teeth than I would, at least for the resident agent, because that is a requirement of a bed and breakfast. ... So that could be a complaint to the health department or to us and we would talk to the health department."

Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming "Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story" and can be reached at

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