Riverhead Town’s three-year old law banning rentals of less than 30 days is being challenged by two Wading River women who are seeking more than $5 million in damages, according to a complaint filed in federal court Tuesday.
Virginia Greico and Debbie Neihoff of Oak Street in Wading River, owners of luxurybeachfrontgetaway.com, filed the suit against Riverhead Town, claiming its short-term rental ban is a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act, which makes its unlawful to deny a dwelling to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status or national origin.
The attorney in the case, Salem Katsh of Orient, also represents clients who brought a lawsuit in State Supreme Court challenging Southold Town’s short-term rental ban of less than 14 nights on the basis that some short-term rentals existed before the town ban and should thus be “grandfathered.”
Mr. Katsh said this latest short-term rental suit is “based on the fact that families with children are effectively precluded from vacationing in Riverhead.”
“A family vacation is not possible in the normal lodgings of as hotel, motel, B&B for a family with kids and maybe a dog,” he said. “So their only alternative in a vast majority of cases is a short-term rental. When those are made unavailable for less than 29 days, families with children are prejudiced.”
He said families with children are a class that is protected by the federal Fair Housing Act. The lawsuit says families with children “would find it difficult, if not wholly infeasible, to find a hotel, motel or B&B offering equally suitable and affordable facilites” as a short-term rental home.
The Riverhead Town Board on August 16 authorized legal action to be taken against the owners or operators of eight properties on Creek Road in Wading River, which officials say are mostly run by Ms. Greico and Ms. Neihoff.
Those lawsuits have not yet been filed, according to Riverhead Town Attorney Bob Kozakiewicz.
The issue of the Wading River rentals was raised by several neighbors of those properties at a June 21 Riverhead Town Board meeting.
Oak Street resident Dan Sackowitz told the Town Board that of the 21 Wading River rentals listed on the website VRBO, 13 were owned or managed by Ms. Greico.
He said at the peak rental seasons, they were advertising prices of more than $1,000 per night, more than $2,000 per weekend and almost $8,000 for a week.
Councilwoman Jodi Giglio told Mr. Sackowitz that these rentals violated the town’s law banning rentals of under 30 days. She said the town now has a new computer system that will better enable it to take code violations and complaints.
The town also had hired an assistant town attorney, Dawn Thomas, to specifically deal with those issues, Ms. Giglio told Mr. Sackowitz.
“People are not going to take advantage of us and think they can walk all over the Town or Riverhead and destroy the quality of life of our residents,” Ms. Giglio said.
Supervisor Sean Walter told Mr. Sackowitz on June 21 that the town was building a case against Ms. Greico and Ms. Neihoff.
“This will be one of our number one priorities,” he said.
The Town Board enacted the 2013 law banning rentals of fewer than 30 days after neighbors of such rentals complained they were turning into “party houses” and were operating as commercial establishments in residential areas.
But the lawsuit filed this week defends the practice.
“Renting beachfront and vacation properties to tourists/vacationers on a short-term basis is a ubiquitous practice throughout the country,” the federal lawsuit states. It says such short-term rentals are an “essential alternative” to hotels, motels or bed and breakfasts.
Mr. Kozakiewicz said on Wednesday that he’s “comfortable the town will be successful” in defending itself against the federal lawsuit.
The suit seeks $5 million in punitive damages from the town, along with an unspecified amount of actual damages and an injunction preventing the town from enforcing its short-term rental law.
Caption: A screenshot of an interactive map on luxurybeachfrontgetaway.com.