2018-03-16 / Front Page

Residents turn in petition among police calls

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


South Portland City Clerk Emily Scully counts the number of petition pages submitted March 12 by Preble Street resident Michael Frabotta, right. Nearly 1,500 signatures were handed over in an effort to overturn new rules adopted by the city council that restrict the ability of homeowners to rent out rooms for periods of less than 30 days. (Duke Harrington photo) South Portland City Clerk Emily Scully counts the number of petition pages submitted March 12 by Preble Street resident Michael Frabotta, right. Nearly 1,500 signatures were handed over in an effort to overturn new rules adopted by the city council that restrict the ability of homeowners to rent out rooms for periods of less than 30 days. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — A group of city residents who say the city council encroached too far on personal property rights when setting new home rental rules has submitted a petition to undo that work, but the effort has not come without controversy, confrontation and intervention by local police.

Those who circulated the petition have accused their opponents of engaging in brown shirt tactics designed to intimidate voters into not signing while those who engaged petitioners on the streets say false information was being given to deceive residents into signing their names. Police were called to intervene five times on Saturday, March 10, and once more on Sunday, issuing one person, Simonton Street resident Dan Romano, a “cease harassment” order.

On Monday, March 12, the main petition circulator, Preble Street resident Michael Frabotta, spent most of his morning at Cumberland County District Court, taking out a retraining order against Romano.

“He confronted me in my driveway yelling and screaming at me,” Frabotta said. “He then chased us though the streets and stalked us for two days, actually putting himself between us and people we were talking to, demanding they not sign until talking to him first. If that’s the crazy way he acted when we were collecting signatures, I had no way of knowing how he’d react when I actually turned them in. I was afraid he might come completely unhinged. As it is, my wife and daughter are afraid to leave our house because of him.”

Romano said Monday that Frabotta and others hoping to overturn the new rental rules are lying on all fronts.

“I am so, so sad,” he said. “I am such a respectful person and I respect their First Amendment rights, but I just can’t believe all the lies they are saying about us. I just can’t even fathom it. They were not telling the truth about the ordinance, and I am just distraught about the lies that have been said about me. I am appalled. People who know me know I am a very respectful person.”

Romano acknowledged that he and others “shadowed” petitioners “to make sure accurate information was being told,” but denied, “going side-by-side with anyone.”

Romano also denied confronting anyone or creating a disturbance, but said he was too tired, having “not slept in three days,” to answer any further questions, promising to speak more before the Sentry’s print deadline.

Romano could not be reached Monday evening and on Tuesday morning he said he was about to get out at a job site and could not talk. On Tuesday evening, be made a second brief statement but again said he was too tired to answer questions, promising a full interview “later in the week.”

“I’m a good guy. I have a lot of friends in South Portland and they know the kind of person I am. They know I am an honorable man. So, I am just going to put my trust in God and go to bed. I’ve got to get some sleep,” he said.

Romano would not confirm receiving a cease harassment order on Saturday or a being served with a restraining order on Monday.

Lt. Frank Clark, spokesman for the South Portland Police Department confirmed Monday that officers had intervened and a cease harassment order was issued, but refused to say to whom, or why.

“Nobody was arrested or charged with any crime, so none of the names or other identifiable information of the persons involved is considered public information or releasable at this point,” he said.

Meanwhile, Frabotta submitted 69 petition pages that contained nearly 1,500 signatures to City Clerk Emily Scully on Monday afternoon, beating the final deadline by about an hour.

According Scully, the city charter requirement to force council action to reconsider an ordinance – a least 5 percent of the number registered to vote at the last city election – came to exactly 1,000 names. Her office now has 20 days to validate the submitted petition forms. Unless enough signatures are struck as invalid, the council will then have 60 days before it must act, to either repeal the recent ordinance changes, as requested, or to send the question to voters. That means the council would have to make its decision before May 31. If the council elects to send the petition out to referendum, in can schedule that vote as far out as 15 months, or July 2019, at the latest.

On Tuesday, March 13, Mayor Linda Cohen said she could not predict which option the council might take, to overrule themselves or let the voters decide. The Feb. 20 vote for the new licensing rules on so-called short-term rentals passed 6-1, while an accompanying zoning amendment garnered two no votes. Cohen also said via email that she will not recommend a referendum date to her peers, if it comes to that.

When the clock starts ticking for a referendum vote “will depend on how long the clerk takes to certify signatures and what council meeting this appears on,” Cohen wrote, adding that there’s an outside chance the public could get to weigh in as soon as June.

“We need time to have absentee ballots available, which might be a concern to hold the election on the same date as the June primary, but it’s a possibility,” she said.

Created in the face of strong and vocal complaints from east end residents over short-term rentals, particularly those made for large groups over social networking websites such as Airbnb, the new rules allow such rentals in South Portland’s residential zones only when the building owner lives in the home and only when present at the time of the rental. Such rents that are allowed must now be registered with the city and are limited to no more than two adults and one infant at any one time.

Homeowners have until April 15 to register for the coming summer rental season. However, prior deals can be honored through Sept. 15 if a rental contract was signed before Feb. 6.

Frabotta, who has lived in South Portland for two years and who has owned his current home since last April, has never taken in short-term rentals and said he has no plans to, even though he resides in the Willard Village-Commercial District, a small enclave of 12 lots that are not one of the few places on the east end free of the more stringent of the new restrictions. His issue, he said, is less with the new rental limits – not that he’s especially wild about those, either – but with with an associated amendment made to the city’s zoning regulations that clarifies that any use of residential property not expressly permitted in city code is forbidden. That, he said, turns on its head the previous presumption by many that any homeowners are free to do as they chose, unless a use is specifically denied.

“To me, this is all about property rights – not just for me, but for everyone living in South Portland,” Frabotta said. “This is about how the city council has completely taken away those basic homeowners rights. I despise government trying to take away rights in general, anyway. But I think the process the South Portland City Council went through to do what it did seemed farcical, almost.”

City Planner Tex Haeuser said the zoning amendment was made merely to clarify what things have always been enforced in practice.

“This is what I always understood for years and years to be, that if something was not permitted it was prohibited – that if someone had something that didn’t really fit, they could come in and try to have it added through an amendment process,” he said.

Former city councilor Rosemarie De Angelis, who was mayor in 2011, aided Romano in efforts to “educate voters,” and although Frabotta and Murphy say her actions were equally unsettling, she held a different view

“There are two sides of the issue we were not trying to do anything illegal or harmful to anyone,” she said. “Our goal was to make sure everyone understood what they were signing and our side of why we hoped they would not sign. Our goal was not to be upsetting. I was out there three days, for seven to eight hours each day, and I didn’t experience anyone I spoke to as being distraught or upset.”

De Angelis said petitioners were overheard saying such things as giving piano lessons would be outlawed under the new rules. That, she said, is untrue – an interpretation backed by Haeuser.

“As long as someone meets the standards for a home occupation, those that are listed in the ordinance are only meant as examples,” he said.

But Willard Street resident John Murphy, who helped in the petitioning, said according to the ordinance, those examples are appended with an “or similar” use restriction.

“So, it’s all open to interpretation,” he said. “With this new idea that any use not listed is not allowed, what do you think something I might want to do might be deemed ‘similar?’ It’ll all depend on who you are and how much the city likes you,” he said.

Murphy alleged that De Angelis interfered with the signature drive, using a sign she brought as a physical barrier between petitioners and voters to stop people from signing until she could talk to them.

“These are real ‘brown shirt’ tactics they were using,” he said. “Every effort they took was specifically designed to intimidate people into not signing.”

De Angelis denies that charge and said she never did any such thing.

Although police reportedly asked De Angelis, Romano and others to stay back 15 to 20 feet from petitioners, she said “There is no law that says you have to stand 15 feet away (from a petitioner on the street).”

“There is no law that says you can’t interrupt someone who is speaking,” De Angelis said. “We did interrupt when we felt there was misinformation being given. Differing sides in politics can be challenging at times, I think. But we were tying toe be respectful of that. We politely asked, ‘Will you please talk to us before you sign that?’ and I walked away from anyone who said did not want to (talk).”

Some, however, had a different view.

Willard neighborhood resident Brenda Peluso says she saw Romano confronting Frabotta when she came to pick up sheets for a signature drive Saturday morning.

“They were yelling back and forth and it looked pretty heated,” she said. “When (Frabotta) got in my car, (Romano) ran to his, pulled a U-ey in the middle of Willard Square and chased after us.”

Peluso said she managed to lose Romano after a couple turns, but that 90 minutes later he found her near Dyer Elementary School, as she was talking to a resident about the petition.

“He came running up, yelling, ‘Don’t sign that until you talk to me,’” she said. “Just the idea that he spent 90 minutes searching for me was unsettling enough, but in today’s age you never know what someone is going to do when they act like that.”

“I don’t think there was anything that happened that warranted calling the police,” De Angelis said. “We were not trying to create a hostile experience. And I think it’s important to point out that we had things that were done to us that were not really cordial or cooperative. But we did not take video of anyone or call the police.”

As the issue continues to percolate, and new short-term rental rules remain on hold due to the petition, Mayor Cohen has issued a call for calm.

“This is an issue with a lot of emotion on all sides,” she said “I would ask our residents to let the democratic process play out and be respectful of that process and each other’s rights. If people feel that incorrect information is getting out, they are free to use various outlets to counter those statements, but I am hoping that harassment and violence is not involved.”

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