2018-02-09 / Community

City clamps down on short-term rentals

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The South Portland City Council capped off a seven-hour session Tuesday, Feb. 6 by clamping down on shortterm rentals.

By the time the unanimous vote came down at 1 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 7, most of the overflow crowd had wandered off to bed, although some stuck it out to the bitter end. The final vote was, some said, the very definition of compromise.

“Everybody leaves unhappy, which makes us all happy,” said Sunset Avenue resident Micah Engber.

The council’s first gathering on its new regular meeting night began at 6 p.m. with an hour-long executive session with City Attorney Sally Daggett. With the council signaling since December its intent to severely curtail and regulate the practice of renting out rooms, apartments, and even entire homes for short durations of a week or less, it has proceeded under the looming threat of a resulting lawsuit. A GoFundMe Page started by Cape Elizabeth resident Margaret Birlem, who owns a home on Stone Drive in South Portland, had raised $3,060 through Wednesday morning for an anticipated court fight over the new rules. On the site, Birlem claims a group of property owners has already chipped in an additional $5,000 toward legal fees, on top of what has been raised, with the promise of an additional match to come.

“They’re out there rattling the can,” said Councilor Adrian Dowling. “These people make more money in a month than I make in a year.”

A chief complaint of many short-term rental opponents since the issue came to a head last fall is that an increasing number of homes in South Portland – particularly in its coastal Ferry Village, Willard and Loveitts Field neighborhoods – are scooped up by absentee owners who treat them as “mini-motels,” renting them out on websites like HomeAway and airbnb for hundreds, even thousands of dollars at a wack. Those put out by the practice claim homes on residential streets are often descended upon by groups of 20 or more, who treat them like party pads, disrupting the sleepy ebb and flow of neighborhood life.

“I’m not a liar – every single summer night my bedroom windows have to be closed,” said Dan Romano of Simonton Street. “All of my neighbors who have to get up and go to work are quiet. The others are on vacation. I do not have a problem with the owners of airbnbs, I have a problem with the destruction of our neighborhood.

“This is a tide that if you don’t stop it, it’s going to ruin the area for every single resident,” Romano said.

On the other side, many homeowners have claimed they are being swept up in a drive to rein in a few bad apples. That additional money that can be made from vacationers is, many claim, all that allows them to afford or keep homes in the city’s increasingly gentrified east end. Many of those homeowners have complained that the council pre-determined the outcome of Wednesday morning’s vote and has not bothered to consider the many individual aspects and circumstances that lead people to solicit their homes and rental units as short-term rentals.

“There has been zero public input. That’s outrageous,” said Willard Street resident John Murphy. “This process has not been fair under any circumstances.”

“I don’t know how to respond to that,” Dowling said at the close of the meeting, after Murphy had left.

Since October, Dowling said, the council has conducted four separate workshops on the shortterm rental issue, each allowing several hours of public testimony, while councilors have been barraged with “hundreds” of phone calls and emails, on both sides of the issue.

“If that’s not public input, what is?” Dowling asked.

“This is not dialogue. This is me speaking into a microphone,” said Marilys Scheindel of Cape Elizabeth, who has purchased three South Portland homes, on Preble Street, Graffam Road and Henry Street, since 2015.

Like many on her side of the issue, Scheindel urged the council to slow its roll and convene a study committee, rather than enact a one-size-fits-all solution that could have long-term unintended consequences. Because it has allegedly responded only to one vocal contingent, Scheindel and others claim the council has created an atmosphere that pits neighbor against neighbor with increasing incivility.

“I’ve lived all over the world and I have never experienced a more unwelcoming community that I have found here,” Scheindel said. “Honestly, I just want to honor my (outstanding) leases and go away.”

Anthoine Street resident Peter Anderson, the first of more than 30 speakers to address the council, echoed in advance of Scheindel’s comments. Like many on his side of the issue, he found irony in the fact that so many claiming short-term rental owners do not value South Portland neighborhoods are newer transplants to the city, many of whom don’t seem to honor the value of individual property rights. He also was considering relocating as a result of recent rancor over short-term rentals.

“I may need to move . . . back to Maine,” he said.

Throwing shade at Mayor Linda Cohen for her inaugural call in early December for “the four Cs” of civility, collaboration, compromise and common sense, Anderson said the council’s approach to the short-term rental issue, and its unwillingness to convene a study committee, has been none of those things.

“I don’t know what collaboration means to you, but (only taking) two-minute soundbytes – I don’t think so,” he said.

“Sometimes a compromise isn’t appropriate,” said Simonton Street resident Diane Romano, referring to short-term rentals as “boutique hotels.”

“Sometimes there just is no middle ground and that’s the way it is,” she said. “And that’s the common sense of this. The common sense is that this has gone on too long.”

“I’ve had hard times, too,” Romano added, “but I got by not by doing things that were not allowed in the ordinances.”

That was a frequent refrain of short-term rental opponents. Because existing city code does not allow “inns” to set up shop in residential zones, and because most short-term rental owners pay a lodging tax to the state, a parade of opponents took to the podium to claim that short-term rentals are, and always have been illegal.

“It’s very hard to look at the code of ordinances and not see that tourist lodgings are not allowed in residential neighborhoods. I don’t know any other way to interpret that,” said Deake Street resident Peter Stanton. “If you are maintaining lodgings, and paying a lodging tax for it, and are paying federal income tax, you are a business.”

But others said the city has acknowledged, accepted and even tacitly approved the use of homes and apartments for short-term rentals. Moreover, its not a recent phenomenon, but something that has gone on quietly for years, even decades – or, as one person claimed, “a century.”

Glenn Perry said when he ran into roadblocks establishing a business on his Pillsbury Street lot, thencode enforcement officer Pat Doucette expressly told him he could run his multi-unit building as a short-term rental for added income.

“Whether we like them now or not, there was a permissive atmosphere,” Perry said. “I think there is reason to say the city does bear some responsibility for its past enforcement practices.”

City Planner Tex Haeuser said a search of city records by current Code Enforcement Officer Matt LeConte turned up no documentation of Doucette ever expressly permitting or advising that a short-term rentals were allowed in residential neighborhoods under existing city code.

Both sides, meanwhile, faulted LeConte for not issuing a ruling of his own. However, in an interview before Tuesday’s meeting, City Manager Scott Morelli said the short-term rental issue had geared up last fall when, faced with increasing complaints, LeConte found himself unable to reconcile current practices with ordinances.

“He was like, ‘I’m not really sure what this says,’” Morelli said, paraphrasing LeConte’s reaction.

Since then, Morelli said, LeConte has not issued a definitive ruling because “there would be no purpose in it,” given knowledge that the city council had taken up the topic and was working on redrafting the rules anyway, which would immediately negate any interpretation.

Those new rules, passed in first reading by unanimous vote, now allow only a limited opportunity to rent out rooms or units for periods of less than 30 days within South Portland’s three residential zoning districts. The primary restriction is that any building used for short-term rentals must be owner-occupied, and the owner must show proof of having qualified for a Maine Property Tax Homestead Exemption, identifying that home as the owner’s primary residence, and the owner must be present at the same time as his or her shortterm rental guests.

Short-term rentals, or “hosted home stays” as they are called in new regulations, can occur in a bedroom of a home or a separate, attached apartment in buildings of up to four units – although only one unit at a time can be rented on a short-term basis.

In the city’s non-residential zones, the owner does not have to live in the building, but short-term rentals are limited to no more than one rental per week. Short-term rental occupancy is limited to two adults and one infant child per bedroom in the non-residential zones, and two adults plus on infant child per building within the residential neighborhoods.

In all cases, all homes and units used as short-term rentals must be registered with the city through the city clerk’s office. That registration will require proof of insurance, a sketch plan for parking and building layout, a completed self-inspection checklist, a sworn statement of residency, and emergency contact information, “in addition to other requirements.” Buildings of more than two units will also be subject to inspection by the fire department.

If the new rules are adopted at a final reading Tuesday, Feb. , no new bookings for short-term rentals could be taken that fail to comply with the changes. Registration of eligible short-term rental units will have to occur by April 15, and changes will be in effect fully, with $1,000 per day fines for violations, on June 1.

“This is a fair and prudent way forward,” said Councilor Claude Morgan. “It is a rock-solid regulatory scheme that, if done well, is defensible.”

Based on advice from Daggett during the executive session, Morgan did move for one amendment, unanimously adopted, to allow non-compliant short-term rentals to occur through Sept. 15, if the building owner can demonstrate that a booking or lease agreement existed in writing before Feb. 6.

However, an amendment from Councilor Susan Henderson to allow up to four people and two infant children in residential zoned short-term rentals with two or more bedrooms failed, with only herself and Councilor Kate Lewis in favor.

Lewis also pulled back an amendment that would have allowed short-term rental owners in the residential zone to not be present when rental guests are in the building for up to 14 days per year, for stretches of not more than seven days at one time.

It was clear from debate the motion would have come down to a 3-3 tie of the council, given the absence of Councilor Eben Rose, and that, Cohen said, would have made the motion ineligible for reconsideration for at least 180 days.

Pulling back the amendment preserved Lewis’ ability to reintroduce it at a later time, which she vowed to do no later than “this fall” when a review of the new rules is expected to take place. And that session, she predicted, will likely once again see councilors and residents alike leaving a meeting bleary-eyed and wishing each other a “good morning.”

“Then we can all come back and do this again, and it will be lovely,”she said.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@inthesentry.com.

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