2018-03-09 / Front Page

‘Disorderly houses’ rule revised

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — One spillover of the month’s-long debate in South Portland over short-term rentals has been the question of so-called disorderly homes. The city council adopted its Disorderly House Ordinance in October 2014, reacting in large part to neighborhood complaints about a two buildings on Free Street, which had been the recipient of 97 police calls over the course of 22 months.

Frustrated by absentee landlords who take no apparent interest in what goes on in the buildings they own, the council adopted the new rule, which calls for a compulsory meeting between city officials and building owners if police are called to a property between three and five times, depending on the number of rental units it has, within any 30-day period. That meeting, which must take place within five days of notice by the city, must result within one week in a written contract in which the property owner agrees to “take effective measures to resolve the disorderly house,” according to the ordinance.

There was push back from property owners at the time, as well as from some city officials. Planning Board member William Laidley complained at the time that, “There is a real tendency of this (city) council to over-regulate the city.”

“You cannot control people,” Laidley said at the time. “That may be news to some of you, but we do not need a police state for what is a nuisance, more than anything. The council has at various times tried to protect us from bees, tattoos, chickens, slingshots, fireworks and now noise makers. It feels like some would like to have this be a gated community, but this is a city, it’s not a forest. People make noise. People live. People bump up against each other in any number of ways. That’s reality.”

Given that one of the most frequent complaints about short-term rental homes is the noise made by guests, some asked early in the process why the city needed a new process to control them. Why not simply employ the already existing disorderly house rules. The city produced records showing the number of police calls to certain neighborhoods on the east where there were short-term rentals, but was never able to demonstrate there had been enough police calls to any particular short-term rental property to trigger a mandatory disorderly house meeting with its owners.

At the second workshop on the topic of short-term rentals, held in November, the council ruled against using the Disorderly House Ordinance as the basis for resolving neighborhood complaints about noise, parking and safety issues presented by certain high-traffic rental homes. However, the council did decide the Disorderly House rules had shortcomings of its own, and asked that City Manager Scott Morelli arrange for an overhaul.

Those tweaks came back to the council on Feb. 20 and, on March 6, passed in a final, unanimous vote that came largely free of comment.

According to Morelli, the changes “ensure that the ordinance does not run afoul of federal laws prohibiting housing discrimination and that it protects an individual’s right to seek police or emergency assistance without penalty and promotes access to safe housing.”

According to City Attorney Sally Daggett, the changes were promoted by an issue in Portland in early 2017, when the city ended up using its Disorderly House Ordinance as a basis to condemn an apartment building on East Oxford Street when the owner failed to resolve issues there, resulting in the eviction of all tenants. Pine Tree Legal, a nonprofit tjat provides free legal services to lowincome people and seniors, brought suit on behalf of the tenants. Portland kept the case out of a judge’s hands, Daggett said, by agreeing to implement several changes requested by Pine Tree Legal, most of which found their way into the South Portland revision.

Among the changes, the ordinance now exempts police calls made in response to claims of domestic abuse, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking, in hopes that fear of triggering the disorderly house rule will not dissuade people from calling police for help when those issues arise.

The time limit for the meeting between city officials and an identified building owner is increased from five to 10 days. If the owner of a disorderly house is called to a hearing before the city council, the ordinance now compels the city to provide notice of that meeting to all building occupants at least seven days in advance, and to take testimony from those residents to “explain any mitigating circumstances surrounding the alleged violations.”

The right to appeal a council ruling on a disorderly house designation is increased from 14 to 21 days, and building residents are to be given similar notice and rights to speak during that process.

Should the city council choose to condemn an apartment building declared to be a disorderly house, it must now give residents 30 days advance notice. The city must also name building residents as “parties in interest” to any legal action brought against the property owner.

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