2012-08-10 / Front Page

Town looks for answers on rentals

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

CAPE ELIZABETH—Short-term rental properties have become issue number one in Cape Elizabeth.

The town council sat down in a workshop on Monday, Aug. 6 in hopes it could find the crux of the problems that have brought complaints from residents since last September.

The council planned to look at possible directions for a resolution to the problem. Proposed ordinance changes have bounced between the town council, planning board, and ordinance committee for much of the last year.

But the council seems to be just as divided on the short-term rental issue as the residents of Cape Elizabeth are.

Some council members, including Chairman Sarah Lennon, thought short-term rentals should be regulated as a business, and subject to the same rules and regulations, since the rentals provide what can be a significant source of income for landlords and property owners.

“Until we call it a business we haven’t begun a conversation,” Lennon said.

One Cape Elizabeth resident who lives on Lawson Road, where many of the issues with unruly renters have taken place, agreed.

“When a house is owned by an LLC and leased out to another party that rents out the house on a short-term basis solely for profit, said Julie Armstrong of 32 Lawson Road.

“It’s hard to imagine any definition of a business that wouldn’t include that definition,” she continued.

But other residents in attendance and members of the council disagreed with Lennon and Armstrong’s point of view. Jim Huebener, who lives on Kettle Cove Road next to a property he rents out, said the crux of the short-term rental problem is behavioral, and council action will not change that.

“If people are going to be jerks, they’re going to be jerks. If they’re going to be responsible, they’re going to be responsible, regardless of whether there’s an ordinance or not. Ideally, I don’t think any ordinance is required at all,” Huebener said.

Councilor Kathy Ray agreed that behavior was the larger issue, and suggested the council approach a solution through amendments to the nuisance ordinance.

Sandy Dunham, who rents out her cottage on Becky’s Cove Lane during the summer, was worried the new restrictions would be overly punitive and punish those who “are being good neighbors.”

Her thoughts were echoed by Councilor Caitlin Jordan, who noted that landlords have been renting out their properties on a short-term basis for decades in town, and the council had to be careful not to punish those who were responsibly engaging in the practice.

But the Internet may have changed that, said Councilor Frank Governali. Home- Away.com lists many properties in Cape Elizabeth available for rent by the night, and makes it easier than ever for vacationers to find a place to stay in town for a weekend.

Because the process is so easy, the character of the town could change, and the current problem might be just “the tip of the iceberg,” Governali said.

The variety of opposing viewpoints in the room among both the crowd of roughly 30 people and the seven-member council forced the discussion in to a mostly theoretical and broadened area.

But the council did discuss some specific ideas.

Town Planner Maureen O’Meara reviewed a survey of other municipal policies around the state and the nation.

In Saco, O’Meara said, the ordinance specifically says the city government had concerns with short-term rentals causing safety issues.

Therefore, Saco limited short-term rentals to certain zones and capped rentals at a maximum number in various neighborhoods.

The Cape Elizabeth council also looked in to the possibility of a Disorderly House Ordinance, based on a model similar to what the city of South Portland put in place in September.

The aim of the ordinance in South Portland is to identify houses that are consistently disobeying the nuisance ordinance by play- ing loud music or otherwise disturbing the peace.

Since the provision was added to the city’s ordinance last fall, the South Portland Police Department has met with a few property owners to resolve recurring issues.

“Although it takes additional police department staff time, the goal of analyzing, identifying, and ultimately responding to (and) solving potential problems is well worth the effort and is a key part of the department’s community policing efforts,” said South Portland Police Chief Ed Googins in a memorandum to the city manager written in June.

Another possible provision the town council considered to help the police department is implementing a “three strikes” rule that would allow the town to pull a landlord’s rental permit after three legitimate complaints.

Cape Elizabeth Police Chief Neil Williams said that provision would help his officers when they respond to calls of disputes between neighbors, but regardless whether the ordinance is changed, there will still be pressure on the neighbor to make the initial complaint.

The ideas signified progress on an issue that has grown in scope since the town government began wrestling with it in September.

But there still remains an unresolved divide among both town residents and government officials. Lennon summed up that essential argument at Monday’s workshop.

“We don’t want to overregulate people who have been good neighbors, but we don’t want neighborhoods to be short-term rental meccas,” she said.

That means after nine months of discussions, public forums, and proposed ordinance amendments, there is still work for Cape Elizabeth to do.

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