2018-04-06 / Front Page

City reverses course on rental rules

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — New rules governing so-called short-term rentals in South Portland are no more following a unanimous vote by the city council Tuesday, April 3.

The new licensing requirements, which were adopted by a 6-1 vote Feb. 20, would have called on anyone who rents a home or attached apartment for stretches of less than 30 days to register with city hall starting April 15. Such rentals would have been significantly cut back in residential districts, limited to no more than two adults and one infant at any one time, regardless of the number of bedrooms available. Meanwhile, homeowners would have to declare the building is their primary residence, and would have to be present for the entire length of any rental.

An accompanying zoning amendment, adopted in a 6-2 vote, clarified that any use of residential property not expressly enumerated in city codes was no longer allowed.

Although people with short-term rentals have been offered by South Portland homeowners for decades, the practice had become increasingly visible in recent years thanks to websites such as HomeAway and Airbnb. The practice has also become increasingly burdensome to neighbors and the new rules were an attempt by the council to get a grip on the issue following a groundswell of complaints that began last summer.

Although the number of short-term rentals in South Portland has been cited as anywhere from 75 to 282, most agree problems are largely confined to the city’s increasingly gentrified west end, and, even there, to a trio of homes owned by a Cape Elizabeth couple, who have reportedly rented to boisterous groups as large as 20 at a time, for weekend parties.

“This is a fair and prudent way forward,” said District 1 Councilor Claude Morgan, who has publically taken credit for heeding the will of his inbox and introducing the need for a clampdown.

“It is a rock-solid regulatory scheme that, if done well, is defensible,” Morgan said at the Feb. 20 vote.

Others felt differently. Some called the new rules too restrictive. Others, such as Preble Street resident Michael Frabotta, railed at the new zoning language. Frabotta has called the provision an assault on personal property rights, although City Planner Tex Haeuser has said that during his three-decade tenure, he has never acceded to Frabotta’s interpretation of the status quo prior to the clarifying add-on, that any residential use is allowed unless expressly forbidden.

Still, Frabotta circulated a petition to repeal the new rules, as allowed under city charter. The city clerk’s office validated 1,289 names. With only 1,000 names needed to force council action, the council voted March 20 to reconsider its decision. That set the stage for the Tuesday, April 3 vote, to either repeal new rental rules or send the question to voters.

During 90-minutes of debate Tuesday, Mayor Linda Cohen continually reminded speakers to confine themselves to one option or the other. The time to debate the merits and/or problems with short-term rentals had passed, she said, already covered in more than half a dozen previous council sessions, some of which ran to well past midnight.

Still, some could not help but review the situation to date.

“The division in this community is palpable,” said Willard Haven Road resident Tony Ickes. “If you send this to referendum, I predict the division is only going to get worse and it’s only going to get more bitter. If this goes to referendum, the kind of turmoil we have seen to date is only the beginning.”

Most of those who spoke favored immediate repeal. Only a handful of the most ardent opponents of short-term rentals during debates that have raged since last October failed to raise that flag. But even they were unwilling to demand what lay behind Door No. 2

“I trust you to do the right thing,” said Simonton Street resident Diane Romano.

Only one person, former city councilor Rosemarie De Angelis, stumped strongly for a public vote. De Angelis arrived part-way through the meeting, saying she had been watching from home on community access television, when she felt compelled to race in and make her pitch.

“Everybody wants to be conciliatory. I don’t really care about a conciliatory attitude. I don’t really care whether everybody is happy,” she said, adding that she was “on the side of protecting residential neighborhoods.”

“A referendum does not frighten me at all. Not at all,” De Angelis said. “Bring it to the public. Let them vote on a referendum. I’m ready.”

That rallying cry appeared to conflict with previous statements, however. When Frabotta began circulating his petition, De Angelis and Dan Romano – who drew a restraining order for his efforts – shadowed him and fellow petitioner John Murphy, requesting to speak to people before they signed. The petitioners were giving out incorrect and misleading information in order to secure signatures, they said, claiming a First Amendment right to interject themselves into the conversations.

One of those who did not like that approach was Pleasantdale resident Kirk Ordway.

“She said she did not want a mini hotel next to her home and she felt what the council did was OK,” Ordway said in a March 12 interview, recalling an encounter that weekend in front of Scratch Bakery. “I said that’s understandable, but what’s wrong with the petition, with just letting the question go out to voters, and her comment to be was, ‘The voters will get it wrong.’”

Ordway said he was so incensed by that comment he immediately turned to Murphy and requested a petition sheet, after which he went out and collected 20 signatures of his own.

Many of those who spoke in favor of an immediate repeal who had not previously outed themselves as short-term rental owners or advocates of absolute property rights also were against sending the question to voters, if for different apparent reasons that De Angelis’ reported objection.

“I fear if this is sent to a referendum, nobody is going to be happy,” said Orchard Street resident Patricia Whyte. “I would rather not see our city divided further.”

In the end it was Morgan who moved to repeal the rental rules. Whether he had changed his mind on the “rock-solid regulatory scheme” was unclear. He did not say and he has not responded to attempts from the Sentry to secure comment on the repeal effort.

However, a March 27 memo from City Attorney Sally Daggett advised that the first motion be to repeal. Had that motion failed, the next vote would have been to set a date for the referendum, she wrote.

Of the councilors, only Kate Lewis spoke to the vote, presenting yet another reason not to go to referendum, as she likened the financial clout of Airbnb to that of the oil industry, which had helped fund the campaign that let to defeat of a tar sands ban at the polls in 2014.

“I’m not interested in a flood of corporate money coming it South Portland to finance yet another referendum campaign,” she said.

Many of those who spoke in favor of repeal urged the council to “go back to square one” and form a committee of stakeholders from all sides of the short-term rental issue.

“I’m not in favor of a committee,” Lewis said. “I think that’s only going to continue the fighting and we are not going to get and further.”

Instead, Morgan urged his peers to convene a new workshop to revisit the rules that had just been overturned for improvements palatable to a greater number of city residents.

Although the council did not formally set a workshop date, Morgan suggested debate could begin again as soon as the council’s April 24 meeting.

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