2018-08-24 / Front Page

Rental rules reconsidered

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — After more than a year of often heated debate, in which both sides have claimed widespread support, it appears South Portland’s new short-term rental rules could go to a public vote, giving everyone a chance to finally gauge the true consensus of the community.

On Tuesday, Aug. 21, the city council voted 7-0 to reconsider regulations governing homes and rooms rented for periods of less than 30 days.

Adopted by the council by a 5-2 vote July 17, those rules compel homeowners to register with the city in order to engage in short-term rentals. It also places a limit of six guests per house, at two adults per bedroom and, but for an allowance of 14 days per year, requires that owners be present for the duration of the rental period. Among other provisions, there was a limit of one rented living unit per property in residential zones – or two, in buildings with four or more separate units – and a provision that a short-term rental property must be the owner’s primary residence.

The unanimous vote to reconsider was forced by a citizens petition and, with the issue back on the table, the council immediately agreed to postpone the matter to its Sept. 4 session. At that meeting, which will include a public hearing, the council can vote to repeal everything it passed in July, or send that package to the public for an up or down vote.

The city charter allows the council to call that referendum anywhere from 30 days to 15 months after its final action. However, it is widely expected the question will be added to the general election ballot Nov. 6.

This is the second time residents have attempted to rein in council efforts to regulate short-term rentals.

Debate on the topic began last summer when people living on South Portland’s east end began to complain about a trio of homes owned by a Cape Elizabeth couple, which were regularly rented out to large parties via the home sharing website Airbnb. Concern over those three homes quickly escalated to complaints about the rise of the Airbnb phenomenon in general and neighbors began to lobby the city council for action.

An initial, more restrictive attempt to rein in reported excesses in noise and traffic caused by Airbnb homes,was adopted by the council Feb. 20. Those rules also were subjected to a repeal effort, and the council agreed April 24 to repeal that ordinance package and try again.

Leaders of the first petition drive didn’t like the 2.0 version any better, and launched a second repeal effort, filing their signatures with city hall on Aug. 6.

According to City Clerk Emily Scully, 1,457 valid names from registered voters were turned in, which is above the minimum 1,000 needed to trigger council action.

The council could vote Sept. 4 to repeal the contested ordinance language, setting up a third attempt to craft viable regulations. However, most on the council have already expressed a desire to let voters have the final say on this second set of rules.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Mayor Linda Cohen announced there would be no debate on the vote to reconsider and the council would accept no public comment. There would be time for that at the Sept. 4 hearing, she said.

Nonetheless, 15 people spoke to the issue during the portion of the agenda reserved for public comment, consuming nearly a full hour of meeting time.

Although all but three expressed hope the public would vote to retain rental rules crafted by the council, most said it is indeed time to send the question to voters.

“I urge you all to not let this go on any longer. No more discussions,” Simonton Street resident Diane Romano told the council.

Romano was one of, if not the first to complain to the city last year about the impact of Airbnb rentals on the tranquility of east end neighborhoods. She has since been a regular fixture at council meetings, some of which have lasted four, five and even six hours, to as late as 1 a.m.

“It’s time to end this game of cat and mouse and end it for good. Let’s go to referendum,” she said. “There’s an enormous constituency that does not want these (shortterm rentals). I am 100 percent confident the people are going to vote to keep these regulations.”

“The public is speaking and the public will speak at referendum,” said John Murphy, a leader of the two petition drives, referring to the number of people who twice signed on to force council action on a repeal.

For her part, Romano urged voters to turn out at the polls, calling the run-up to Nov. 6 “very important.”

“Even if you are not experiencing the horrors that we are all describing, it’s just a matter of time until you will,” she said to anyone watching the meeting on public access.

Romano said it was too late for her neighborhood, that all the homes anyone was interested in selling to an Airbnb investor had already traded hands. But that market could soon work its way across the city, she warned.

“The Willard Beach neighborhood, forgive my language, it’s really been raped,” she said. “So, there’s not many properties left and they’ll just go on to the next neighborhood.”

Ocean Street resident Ken Thomas called Romano and other vocal opponents of short-term rentals “crisis actors.” All council action to date has been driven by their anecdotal evidence, he said, with no effort expended on the city to procure hard data on the number and nature of short-term rentals in South Portland.

“I don’t think it’s good when the deck is stacked against the truth. I’m not in favor of one side or the other. I’m in favor of all of us doing the right thing based on the best data possible,” he said. “The democratic process has to rely on the truth and there’s a whole mess of knowable things that are not entering into this debate.”

“For that reason this should go to referendum,” Thomas said. “But what the people need to know is that this ordinance is not based on a fair debate. It’s based on the opinions of a few crisis actors and, yes, a few bad actors among the short-term rental owners. But that is not the entirety of this story.”

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