Two issues within Bellport Village became clear during Saturday morning’s nearly two-hour discussion between residents and members of the village’s residential rental/bed & breakfast committee.
First, there is a complete lack of commercial operations such as hotels or bed-and-breakfasts in the village where visitors could stay for a night or weekend.
Second, many are concerned that more and more people are filling that void by renting their homes to strangers for short-term stays through websites such as airbnb.com and homeaway.com.
But what to do about either issue remains far from clear.
As committee member Steve Porcaro explained, the meeting was more an informational back-and-forth so the group could get a better idea about how residents felt and listen to any ideas or advice for solving current or even potential rental problems.
The residents’ opinions varied greatly among the almost two dozen who spoke, with some calling for stricter regulations of all rentals — and others decrying such measures as an overreaction from just a few complaints and a shift from tradition in favor of a more government-involved approach.
As for the lack of bed-and-breakfast’s, one of the village’s more famous residents, actress and model Isabella Rossellini, weighed in with a letter read aloud by the committee.
Rossellini wrote that it was the existence of a local bed-and-breakfast that led to her moving to Bellport after first staying at a B&B across from The Bellport Restaurant in 1982.
She then came to use that same B&B to support her work.
“Working as a model and an actress, I was able to organize shoots in the village and accommodate the crew,” she said. “This business opportunity is no longer possible now. I firmly believe that it would be very positive to allow a B&B and short-term rentals in our village.”
Porcaro, who now owns the former bed-and-breakfast to which Rossellini referenced — although he uses it as a rental property — said the village could consider extending its business district by a few parcels on each side to allow some buildings to accommodate B&Bs.
That, he said, or maybe just a few of those parcels could be allowed to establish B&Bs on a case-by-case basis through a zoning appeals process.
Another resident, Jeff Weinstein, also complained about the lack of places for residents’ guests to stay, and feared limiting renters to two-week or longer minimums would take away the one option locals do have when visitors are in town.
“There are homes outside the business district that would make beautiful bed-and-breakfasts,” Weinstein said. “I would be very, very happy to have that option and not have to look for some — frankly, not very appealing — motels and hotels that are not even that close to the area.”
Bellport Village Board members tried to solve these same issue themselves last summer by passing a code that would have allowed legal, permitted and owner-occupied B&B operations in any residential zone within the entire village. That was scrapped amid public outcry.
The board then appointed the committee in September.
It’s being chaired by South Howells Point Road resident Mary Butler, who said Saturday she spent this past fall detailing how other towns and villages are handling short-term rentals, from Montauk and Southold through Brookhaven and Islip towns.
Most areas have set minimum stay regulations with some also increasing fines for offending homeowners.
“If you can imagine the chart, with all of these towns and villages, every one has a permit process,” she told the nearly 50 people in attendance Saturday. “When we come to our lovely little village of Bellport; we don’t have that process.”
For resident Len Groopman, he questioned why the village was taking the airbnb issue and — as he saw it — using it to implement drastic, across-the-board changes.
“My concern is that we’re taking a very narrow problem and spreading it to the point where a tradition and a history of rentals in Bellport, seasonal or what have you, is going to be bureaucratized and more regulated,” he said. “The traditions of the village, which is what we’re trying to protect, are actually going to be lost or changed. Now, people who rent for the summer or a month will have to get a permit” and everything that would entail.
“That’s a major change in the life of the village, it seems to me,” he continued. “And in the potential values of properties in the village.”
Mayor Ray Fell, who was in the audience, responded that there are safety issues, such as fire codes, that the village very well should be addressing through a permit process.
When the residents in attendance were later asked by show of hands whether they would like to see the rental process more regulated in the village, the nearly split audience appeared to lean toward more regulation.
Many expressed deep concerns with homes being transformed into profit-driven operations, with strangers coming and going each week, negatively affecting the neighborhoods.
Kathleen Bulter, the committee chairwoman’s sister who also lives in the village, insisted that as other areas crack down, more people will start eyeing Bellport Village for unregulated, short term stays.
“Addressing this now makes sense; it is coming our way,” she said.
She said a home near her parents’ house in Bellport is being listed online for rent.
“They aren’t looking to rent to families,” she said. “They got bunkbeds in the upper floors. They’re trying to go for maximum people. We have to take on permits and rentals, otherwise we’re putting our heads in the sand. I don’t want to be bureaucratic, but we have to address it as simply as we can.”
Village Trustee Leslie O’Connor, who was also in attendance, warned that if no permitting process is put in place, investors will start buying in Bellport specifically to rent the homes out to short-term renters for profit.
She also said the village’s traditions need to be put into the context of a changing world.
“In the age of airbnb and rooms for rent online, we can have different people in every weekend in houses throughout this village,” O’Connor said. “That by its very nature changes us from a neighborhood where people know each other, to a transient population of people who have no investment in this village.”
“It’s very different when you’re talking about someone who is renting for a month or a season and they are embraced by our residents as part of the community.” she continued. “This is not the traditional rentals that we’ve always had. It’s fly-by-night weekenders, in and out, who have no care about our quality of life or the quality of our village.”
The committee is expected to report later this winter with its suggestions.
Photo: Bellport Village residents consider short-term rental and lodging issues Saturday in the village’s community center. (Michael White)