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Riverhead Town’s short-term rental ban lands in federal court

Two women who have been brought to court by Riverhead Town officials on charges of illegally renting homes for less than 30 days have now turned the tables and are suing the town over its 2013 short-term rental ban.

Virginia Grieco and Debbie Neihoff, who own or manage homes on Creek Road in Wading River as short-term rentals, filed a federal lawsuit against the town last Wednesday, claiming the town law banning residential rentals of less than 30 days is a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act. That act was passed in 1968 as a means of eliminating discrimination in the sale and rental of housing.

The women, who operate the website Luxurybeachfrontgetaway.com, had filed a similar federal lawsuit against the town in 2016, but later withdrew it, while indicating it could be refiled.

The new twist in the 2017 version of the lawsuit alleges that Riverhead Town “is selectively enforcing the Town Code against only members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) community.”

Ms. Grieco and Ms. Neihoff, who live on Oak Road in Wading River, are married, the lawsuit says.

“Riverhead only brought suits after it realized plaintiff’s properties were being used for lesbian weddings,” it states.

The lawsuit also claims the town is discriminating against families with children, since they would be unlikely to rent a home for more than 29 days.

“Families with children, one of the ‘protected classes’ under the Fair Housing Act, would find it difficult if not wholly impossible to find a hotel, motel or B&B offering equally suitable and affordable facilities,” the lawsuit states.

It continued: “The one-month minimum imposed by the 2013 law makes it all but impossible for the vast majority of families with children to rent a residential Riverhead house in order to enjoy a family vacation.

“For many reasons unique to this protected class, in the vast majority of cases families with children cannot practically take extended vacations in hotels, motels or B&Bs.”

Proponents of short-term rentals say they help the local economy and allow people who can’t afford a lengthy hotel stay to take vacations.

Debate over Riverhead’s short-term rental law has taken place at several Town Board meetings in the past year or so, as Ms. Grieco has frequently brought supporters of short-term rentals to speak at Town Board meetings. She has created an online petition that currently has more than 500 people in support of allowing short-term rentals.

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said in February that the town intends to continue enforcing the short-term ban. He said Creek Road is zoned for residential use and short-term rentals constitute a commercial use.

Mr. Walter declined to comment on the new lawsuit.

On Aug. 16, 2016, the Town Board had authorized the town attorney’s office to commence litigation involving several Creek Road properties that Ms. Grieco and Ms. Neihoff either own or manage as rentals, and later filed litigation in state Supreme Court pertaining to three of the properties.

The recent federal lawsuit also names Jim Csorny, who lives next to Ms. Grieco and Ms. Neihoff on Oak Road, as a defendant. It accuses him of “harassment, annoyance, alarm and intimidation,” including “verbal abuse, trespassing, taking photographs of them, their property, and their guests, shining flash lights in their windows and making them fear for their safety.”

“The allegations against me are 100 percent false, other than taking pictures and sending them to the town,” Mr. Csorny said Tuesday.

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File photo: Virginia Grieco