2018-07-20 / Front Page

Rental rules reasserted

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – A second attempt to regulate the short-term rental of residential property in South Portland has drawn a promise from opponents to launch a second repeal effort. However, this time the effort will reportedly include an attempt to recall one of the city council’s leading supporters for the new rules.

The rise in visibility of the short-term rental phenomenon, as fueled by websites such as Airbnb and HomeAway, was accompanied last summer by complaints from Willard neighborhood residents who objected to the transformation of private homes into mini-motels and party pads said to host rotating streams of rowdy tourists in groups as large as 15 or 20 at a time.

In his first reply to an email on the topic from Simonton Street resident Diane Romano Aug. 4, District 1 Councilor Claude Morgan suggested she pursue enforcement through the city’s disorderly house ordinance. However, as more east end residents chimed in and the depth of concern became clear, Morgan became the self-acknowledged leader on the council of an attempt to rein in the rental of rooms, and even whole homes, for periods of less than 30 days.

In response, Willard Square resident Michael Frabotta, claiming city infringement on personal property rights, launched a repeal effort, aided in large part by John Murphy, who owns a beachfront home on Willard Street. Under duress from the resulting petition, the city council repealed the new rules at an April 3 meeting and launched a do-over.

Those revisions came up for a final vote Tuesday, July 17, passing in a similar 5-2 breakdown as the original version, with councilors Adrian Dowling and Eben Rose opposed.

Rose said the new rules rely too heavily on property owners applying for the required license.

“It really just comes down to the zeal and grainy detail of enforcement, which to me is the big problem in this city and has been for a long time,” he said.

“The whole justification for having licensing be the mechanism for enforcing this was that it’s a quick and efficient process to deny or suspend or revoke a license, and that’s great, if you get one. But if you don’t feel like you are a business, you’re not going to get a license,” he added.

Under the new ordinance, which goes into effect Jan. 1, 2019, new rental rules allow up to six short-term renters per house, and two adults per bedroom. Although the requirement that a home be the owner’s primary residence, a requirement that the owner be present during any rental was relaxed to allow rents of up to 14 days per year, with a minimum stay of seven consecutive days, while the owner is not present. Registered short-term rental units are limited to one per lot or parcel of land, except that the owner of a four-unit building may register two short-term rental units. Additionally, a potential loophole was erased that might have allowed more than two shortterm rental units per building by converting the structure to condominium ownership under multiple legal entities.

Also, despite a planning board vote last week encouraging the council to restore language clarifying that no residential use is allowed that is not expressly permitted by zoning, the council left that section out of the do-over, as it has been the chief complaint of petitioners, who felt any use should be allowed that is not expressly prohibited.

In amendments added Tuesday night, Dowling excised a limit on parking by adjusting the rules to simply say property owners must provide sufficient off-street parking to accommodate the number of guests, while Morgan moved to allow accessory dwelling units that are not attached directly to the primary home.

Morgan said he knew of two homeowners who would be “blown out of the water” and prevented from engaging in short-term rentals by the requirement that the rented rooms be attached to the main house.

After the meeting, Frabotta and Murphy claimed those two homeowners “must be buddies” of Morgan, to warrant the consideration, given his past opposition to short-term rentals in general.

Frabotta said allowing property owners to rent their homes while away on vacation was added at the suggestion of Councilor Kate Lewis, who acknowledged the need was raised to her by a friend who does so. He also attempted without success Tuesday to get Mayor Linda Cohen to recuse herself from the vote, given that at the start of regulatory work last fall, her daughter bought a property in Willard Square, considered a limited commercial zone, were she now enjoys one of the very few homes close to the beach where short-term rentals are allowed even if the owner does not live on site.

“This council operates on the friends and family plan,” Frabotta said.

Murphy and Frabotta vowed to take out papers for a new repeal effort “by the end of the week.” Although both are not impacted by the new rules – Frabotta, who also lives in the Willard commercial zone, said he has no intention of engaging in short term rentals, while Murphy is in the clear for his accessory unit – both say the council has again gone too far to infringe on personal property rights.

“Sure, I’m OK, but what about all of the people who are being screwed?” Murphy asked. “A lot of regular working people depend on their property for their retirement. They should not be put out just because they’ve invested in a second home they don’t live in. To say people shouldn’t be able to buy residential property as an investment, the city really thinks it can legislate who buys what, and where they live?”

“Nothing has changed, this is still an overreach,” Frabotta said.

Both men said they are targeting Morgan exclusively for recall because of alleged bias.

“He has never replied to a single one of my emails,” Murphy said.

Morgan has in the past claimed he’s received no emails from Murphy, even asking the city’s public access administrator to search for any he might have missed. None were found, he said.

After Tuesday’s meeting, Morgan said via text message that it is too soon to comment on any recall effort, until one actually materializes and the exact charges against him are put in writing.

In other related matters Tuesday night, the council voted to sponsor a series of public moderated community forums to gather feedback on the new rental rules and suggest changes that might be considered in the future.

That concept drew little apparent support from either side of the issue. Supporters of short-term rentals said it was too little too late, and that such outreach should have been undertaken before the council adopted legislation.

Meanwhile, those who oppose the short-term rental trend say the tension between them and their opponents is simply too great to bridge with a public pow-wow session.

“It’s like taking a bunch of devout Catholics and a bunch of atheists and putting them in a group together,” said Romano. “Is the hope that we’re all going to come out agnostic?”

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