When the trees were taken down at 51 Orchard Place in Beacon, one resident who was watching them fall said she felt "scared." The home that sits up on the mini-hill at 51 Orchard Place, at the base of the Y that loops East Willow and West Willow to regular Willow Street, had recently come under new ownership by Fortress Enterprises, LLC, after being empty for quite some time, according to a parcel search with Dutchess County.
"I have watched this house deteriorate for over 6 years. I was really excited to see that someone had bought it and was beginning to bring it back to life," said Karen Nelson on December 4, 2017 at the City Council meeting. She spoke during the Public Comment portion of the meeting, where people can address the council members with anything on their minds.
Several mature trees were cut down at 51 Orchard Place - more than the three mature trees that are allotted for in Beacon's city code. "After all the trees fell, the light had changed. The noise level was higher," Karen said. "The sight lines into neighbors' houses across the street were clearer. And theirs into mine." The noticeable shift to the space, as well as the addition of a new driveway, prompted Karen to look into the matter. Word on the neighborhood circuit was that the house was being refurbished to be a $500/night Airbnb property. This house wouldn't be the first in Beacon to be used for Airbnb, but it seems to be in the first wave of properties used solely for different short-term renters without owner occupancy.
Beacon has yet to create regulations around Airbnbs, while New York City has addressed them. Fines of $1,000 per violation have already been issued. According to The Verge, "The law under which they were charged fines people who rent out entire apartments for fewer than 30 days. State lawmakers believe those rentals encourage property managers and owners to construct what essentially amount to hotels in residential buildings."
Airbnb sued New York City in 2016 over the law, according to The Verge, but dropped the lawsuit after it settled with the city in December. "Airbnb agreed to allow New York to pursue violators so long as prosecutors only went after hosts, as opposed to the company itself."
Airbnb has disrupted the travel and hotel industries, and now the change is coming to smaller destination communities as they decide how to fit vacation rentals alongside full-time residents. Beacon has yet to regulate the issue, but the easy access Airbnb gives to creative locations has spurred people from all over to visit Beacon. Personally, we have received an Airbnb's order of pizza (wrong address), and people from California one day came to our front porch and rifled through our mailbox looking for house keys - because they had the wrong address for their Airbnb.
"This is shocking to me," said Karen before the City Council. "In every Beacon zoning map I could find, it shows that this neighborhood is zoned for [Single-]Family Homes. And I emphasize the word 'homes.' It doesn’t say houses or structures or buildings. It is a residential neighborhood."
Hey, You Dang Kids... Get Off My Lawn!
"Kids" here being the figurative word for the sudden attention on this private property and their choice to take down trees that were unhealthy, that did not produce full greenery anymore, and were gangly, virtually hiding the home from view. Depending on which side of the house you are on, one may even say there is now a better view of Mount Beacon as you drive around Orchard Place to turn onto any of the Willow streets.
Regardless, there are laws that homeowners must follow. Unless you are living in the Wild West on dusty land in a log cabin you built yourself, with trees you cut down yourself, surrounded by nothing but distant mountains and rolling weedy meadows, sometimes there are rules one must follow in one's city. Rules are more obvious when they are delivered from an apartment complex manager, or condo community homeowners association. When it's individual homes on acres of land, the rules can be little harder to anticipate, since it feels like land that you own, where you should be able to do what you want.
Loud Outcry After the Trees Fell
Rules can be tricky to know about! Unless, of course, you pore over every line item in the Zoning Code. Beacon voices spoke out first via Facebook to discuss the incident. During the City Council meeting, Mayor Randy Casale addressed some of the concern:
“They [the homeowners] didn’t go to the Planning Board. They didn’t go to the Zoning Board. We got an ordinance that says you can’t cut more than three mature trees down without getting a permit. They didn’t do that. The Building Department is over there. It’s probably going to wind up in court. That’s where we are right now. That’s the best I can tell you.”
To get clarification for this article on which ordinance the mayor was referring to, A Little Beacon Blog emailed the mayor's office to find out exactly which ordinance this is, but did not get a reply by the time this article published. There are sections of the code that refer to trees, but we want to link you to exactly the right one, as provided by a city official. We also emailed the Building Department for a report on the current status of their actions, as alluded to by the Mayor, but also did not receive a reply before publication.