2018-09-07 / Front Page

So. Portland voters to decide future of short-term rentals

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – After a year of sometimes bitter debate over how to best govern vacation rentals in South Portland, the city council will let voters have the final say.

That decision comes after two council stabs at creating rules for short-term rental units got rejected by citizens petitions.

Residents will now have the option of voting to keep or reject the current rules package, which requires that anyone who rents out rooms, apartments, or entire homes register their property with the city. Among its tenets, the new rules require “hosted stays,” meaning that but for an allowance of 14 days per year, homeowners must to be present for the entire time any bedroom or apartment unit is rented out. Rents are limited to six guests per house, at two adults per bedroom, with a cap of one short-term rental allowed at homes in residential zones, or two in buildings with four or more separate apartment units.

Given a sufficient number of signatures faulting their work, the council was compelled to vote Tuesday, Sept. 4 on a repeal of the 2.0 version of the new rules. However, this time the majority decided against going back to the well, with only Councilors Adrian Dowling and Eben Rose in favor of crafting yet another re-write.

That 2-5 vote triggered the only other option allowed by South Portland’s city charter to deal with a citizens petition – namely, to send the question to a public vote. Under the charter, the council could have scheduled that referendum anywhere in a window from 30 days to 15 months following Tuesday’s decision. However, it agreed 5-2, with Dowling and Rose offering resistance, to put the question on the Nov. 6 ballot.

“I think the council found the middle ground (with the second version),” said Councilor Claude Morgan. “We’re at the point now where, philosophically, we can go no further. Let the public decide.”

About 40 people attended Tuesday’s council meeting – less than half the number at many past meetings on the topic. Even so, audience comments lasted nearly three hours, with some people still approaching the podium to have their say more than 40 minutes after the council vote.

Although many urged the council to send the new rules to voters, most also predicted the coming campaign will only serve to further divide residents over the issue.

“A referendum on this issue is going to drive a wedge further separating neighbor against neighbor,” said Sunset Avenue resident Micah Enger. “It’s going to become really contentious.”

Others predicted an influx of corporate cash from out of state, thrown at the referendum to sway voters into rejecting the new rental rules.

“We are going up against an industry that is greedy to the core,” said Simonton Street resident Dan Romano.

Rose blamed “boneheaded decisions” by code enforcement for precipitating the issue. Existing ordinance language already bans inns and tourist accommodations from residential zones, he said, restrictions that were “just interpreted away.” Similar failures to enforce codes already on the books also drove lengthy and heated battles over tar sands and propane yards, he said.

“We get sucked up into these battles for a year, with knife fights on the council, because of this,” Rose said.

For decades South Portland has allowed homeowners to rent bedrooms and apartments for periods of less than 30 days. However, the rise of websites such as Airbnb created a tipping point last summer. As more east end homes sold solely for use as investment properties, locals complained of neighboring homes turned into party pads for rotating hordes of vacationing revelers, sometimes in groups of 15 or more.

Following a series of workshops last fall and winter, the city council passed its first attempt at a regulatory framework in February. Those rules quickly fell to a petition, launched by a small cadre of residents who felt the council had, in its effort to appease some irate residents, infringed too far on the personal property rights of others.

Following repeal of the offending ordinances in April, the council passed a new set of less restrictive rules in July. The do-over, however, drew a similar petition, filed on the same grounds.

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