2018-04-27 / Front Page

City to relax rental rules

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — In the wake of a citizens petition that forced city leaders to pull recently enacted restrictions on home rentals or face a referendum on the topic, the council has signaled a willingness to ease up on some of those rules.

“I think we just went too far,” Mayor Linda Cohen said, near the end of a two-hour workshop Tuesday, April 24.

“I’m humbled by the petition process,” said Councilor Claude Morgan, a driving force behind the original rule set, which he had repeatedly deemed to be “a rock-solid regulatory scheme.”

Cohen, tallying up meeting time since last October, when the council first took up the issue, calculated it has entertained more than 12 hours of public testimony. Even so, some, like Deake Street resident Natalie West, faulted the council process.

“A city cannot formulate legislation such as this on the basis of two-minute sounds bites,” she said. “You need specific factual information and we’re not hearing it tonight.”

As many rental owners have done, West called on the council to convene an ad hoc study group to bring the various interest groups together to parse something more than anecdotal stories about residential homes turned into what many frustrated neighbors, such as Simonton Street resident Dan Romano, have deemed to be “mini-hotels” and “party pads.”

The council declined that course of action however, seeming to put much stock in the recollections of Knightville residents, such as Melanie Wiker and Caroline Hendry, who said a similar group created to review disputes over parking on Ocean Street amounted to little more than a hung jury that only served to foster ill will between downtown residents and business owners.

“It came to a total dead end, wouldn’t go anywhere,” Hendry said. “Don’t think a committee is going to solve this problem. It isn’t.”

Instead, Morgan proposed what he called “major modifications,” to the rules initially passed Feb. 20 and repealed under duress April 3.

As proposed by Morgan, the council agreed in principal to extend the allowance for short-term rentals to two people per bedroom, to a maximum of six per housing unit, with adequate off-street parking, and to make some allowance for homeowners to rent out their homes and apartment units when not present for a set period per year, to allow vacations.

Morgan also suggested excising in the do-over one zoning amendment that had been tied to the repealed licensing framework. That line had clarified that any residential use of property not specifically permitted in zoning is not allowed. Although City Planner Tex Haeuser said that has been his interpretation for his near-three decade tenure, it was this provision which actually prompted the petition, filed by a Preble Street resident who does not rent property, who took the flip view, that any use not specifically banned should be allowed.

Although most of the council fell in line with Morgan to at least some degree, the one hold-out was District 3 Councilor Eben Rose, who has repeatedly called on his peers to tackle the issue via zoning regulation, rather than as a licensing issue.

“Nobody asked for a licensing scheme,” Rose said. “We kind of got guided into that, but that’s not what brought this to council attention in the first place, it was people running these extreme businesses (essentially) going 80 in a 35 mile-per-hour zone.”

Rose held out for either strengthening existing city codes to “make it absolutely crystal clear,” to code enforcement officers and courtroom judges that a ban on inns has always included short-term rental properties, or else new language banning all “non-owner occupied short-term rentals in residential zones.”

“So, I guess we won’t count on your vote, then,” Morgan said.

The council asked Daggett to codify the more permissive rules into a proposal that the council will take up in a first reading as soon as Tuesday, May 15, with an eye toward a Jan. 1 compliance date.

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

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