2018-01-26 / Front Page

Short-term rental question goes back to drawing board

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The issue of shortterm rental units in South Portland has drawn no shortage of public comment as of late, and a recent pause by the city council has it taking heat from both sides heading into the fourth workshop session on the topic in as many months.

The council was slated to address the issue Jan. 24. That meeting took place after the Wednesday morning news deadline for this week’s Sentry. However, on Tuesday, some councilors reported coming under a barrage of emails from property owners who rent out homes as part of the so-called sharing economy.

According to District 5 Councilor Adrian Dowling, he received nine emails on the topic Monday, and five more on Tuesday. “All mostly the same,” he said, “except for the name and address of the sender.”

A separate Jan. 22 email to the council from Preble Street resident Roberta Zuckerman revealed the source of the form letters – home sharing website Airbnb.

A mass mailing from Airbnb, which Zuckerman reported receiving as “a former Airbnb owner-occupied host,” read, “it is critical that city officials hear directly from you about the importance of home sharing for your community and how (proposed) restrictions could hurt your family.”

Among the changes contemplated by the council is a ban on the rental of homes in the city’s three residential zones to people staying less than 30 days if that building is not the primary residence of the owner. And where the owner does live on site, the home could not be rented for more than 90 days per year, and to no more than one party of guests in any seven-day period. In cases where the owner is present at the time of the rental, there would be no frequency or duration limits, but the owner would still have to register with city hall and meet all codes related to public safety, occupancy limits and parking.

Clicking a link in the Airbnb email takes users to the form letter, which they can then send in their own names to all city councilors.

That email, which refers to the proposed regulations as “draconian,” claims the changes “will hurt many residents who rely on STRs (short-term rentals) to pay the bills.”

The email claims that during 2017, 170 homes in South Portland – (or “Woodstock,” in at least one of the emails) were rented to more than 11,000 people, who stayed an average of 2.5 days, “generating $1.6 million for local hosts and millions more for small businesses” in the area. The form letter also claims that 69 percent of all South Portlanders who rent homes via Airbnb are female, while 18 percent are age of 60 or older. This, it says, can be interpreted as “reinforcing the idea that home sharing is helping people ‘age in place’ in the communities they love.”

The letter then goes on to promote shortterm rental rules recently adopted in Portland, calling South Portland’s version, based on a model created in Cape Elizabeth “unnecessary and inappropriate restrictions that,” in the voice of the sender, “will cripple my ability, and the ability of hundreds of families like mine, to earn a little extra money to pay the bills by sharing my home.”

Deake Street resident Peter Stanton also reported getting Airbnb’s digital call to arms.

“While I have used Airbnb in my travels, I am not a (shortterm rental) operator,” he said.

To the contrary, Stanton said he is “completely opposed” to the use of private homes for primarily commercial purpose.

“The proliferation in recent years has severely degraded the quality of life and sense of community which makes this place so special,” Stanton said. “The lobbying actions taken by Airbnb should erase any doubt that short-term rentals are a commercial endeavor.

At a Dec. 11 workshop, the city council signaled its preference for the Cape version of a regulating ordinance, saying it would offer the best relief to residents frustrated by the frequent comings and goings of renters, some of whom allegedly treat homes in otherwise sleepy residential neighborhoods like motel rooms at best, and party pads, at worst. The trend has grown in recent years, thanks to websites like Airbnb and HomeAway. Following the Dec. 11 meeting, which had dozens of speakers complain about the issue, the council instructed city staff to prepare an ordinance that would ban rental of any home not regularly occupied by its owner, and a licensing scheme allowing occasional rental of homes that otherwise serve as the owner’s primary residence.

However, at the end of the council’s four-hour workshop session on Dec. 27, during a period set aside to schedule future workshops, City Manager Scott Morelli reminded councilors the last action on short-term rentals had been the directive to bring ordinance language to a first reading for passage.

But Morelli said, “some questions that have arisen” – questions some councilors said were based on uncertainty over the material prepared to that point by Assistant City Manager Josh Reny – the council voted to steer the process back to a fourth workshop.

“There are some important loose ends that need to be tightened up on what Mr. Reny presented to us,” said Councilor Eben Rose. “There are some really big loopholes that we need to be aware of in what was presented to us.”

“There’s an old adage of moving too quickly and then looking back and regretting what you’ve done,” said Mayor Linda Cohen. “I just want to do it right. To me, that is more important than trying to cram it in.”

That, however, prompted two hours of commentary at the next council meeting, Jan. 3, from residents who feared an about face or, at the least, lengthy delay on action.

Many of those who spoke took to heart the opinion offered by Rose, who has noted that city ordinances already ban inns from residential neighborhoods. Given that those same codes also define an inn as any business renting between one and 20 rooms to transient guests, the city doesn’t need language to ban short-term rentals, Rose has said. They already are.

However, South Portland also lets homeowners rent rooms to one or two people at a time as a home occupation. The question that arises, and the one Airbnb and similar services have until now existed under, is this: What are the lines of demarcation between a private transaction, a home occupation and a business? And, even if those lines can be identified, what is the public interest, if any, in licensing and regulating that activity at the various levels?

Despite Rose’s assertion the short-term rentals are already not allowed in residential areas, City Attorney Sally Daggett has advised councilors that the language and conflicts of the city codes makes a licensing structure for short-term rentals more easily defensible in court.

However, speakers at the Jan. 3 meeting sided with Rose.

“At previous meetings, I felt very comforted by the fact that councilors were supporting us as residents, wanting to protect our neighborhoods and out existing zoning laws,” said Louise Tate, a 20-year resident of Deake Street. “I’m beginning to get a sense that that’s changing, and that makes me very nervous.

Tate said a home across the street from hers has rented to as many as 13 people at a time, “and now has a fire pit on the roof.

“I’ve given love, energy, money, attention, time – my entire self – to my home and my property in a residential neighborhood, and suddenly, there’s a business across the street,” Tate said. “I know there are people who have done this for years respectfully and without complication to the neighborhood, but that’s not what’s happening more recently.”

Peggy Fuller of Grand Street said she would need a city license just to hold a yard sale, and was required to undergo extensive city review just to renovate her porch.

“Wouldn’t I think I might need a license to run a lodging business?” she asked, referring to short-term rentals as “mini-motels.”

“I’m really tired of all of this,” said Preble Street resident Patricia Morrison. “There has been no shortage of guests next to me, coming and going all winter just as much as in the spring, winter and fall, with numerous cars and huge groups of people. Please do something. I beg you.

On the other side of the question is Tony Ickes of Willard Haven Road, who owns a home on Deake Street, which he has rented out for the past seven years to short-term tenants of a few weeks at a time. Ickes said he understood, sympathized with, and supports the concerns of East End residents who are at their wits end over what amounts to an almost industrial level of rental activity. But operations like his, he said, should not be caught up in the drive to rein in what has grown out of control in recent years in other places.

“I thank you for coming back to this issue and looking at it through a longer lens,” he said. “Rather than an outright ban – because there are economic and social benefits of (shortterm rentals) – please look at those benefits closely. Don’t base it all on some bad experiences. Bad experiences can be handled.

“The problems are broad and the solutions often create other sets of problems,” Ickes said. “Start clean. Figure out what the true issues are. Discuss them with the public. Understand that nobody is going to get everything they want, but hopefully, everyone will get what they really need.”

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