2018-08-10 / Front Page

Second’ petition launched against short-term rental rules

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

South Portland City Clerk Emily Scully counts petition pages submitted Monday, Aug. 6, by Willard Square resident Michael Frabotta designed to overturn a pair of measures passed by the city council to regulate short-term rentals. (Duke Harrington photo) South Portland City Clerk Emily Scully counts petition pages submitted Monday, Aug. 6, by Willard Square resident Michael Frabotta designed to overturn a pair of measures passed by the city council to regulate short-term rentals. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — On Monday, Aug. 6, Willard neighborhood residents Michael Frabotta and John Murphy submitted a citizens petition designed to overturn a pair of regulations governing short-term rental properties – one for licensing and one to amend zoning language – adopted by the city council July 17 by a 5-2 vote, with councilors Adrian Dowling and Eben Rose opposed.

This is Frabotta and Murphy’s second goround at trying to beat back restrictions on renting rooms, apartment units and entire homes – a concern that has been on the council’s front burner since last summer, when locals in the Willard and Ferry Village areas began to decry the frequent turnover of large, boisterous vacation groups at homes advertised online at sites such as Airbnb and HomeAway.

One version of the regulation was adopted by the council 5-2 on Feb. 20. Frabotta and Murphy quickly launched a recall effort, leading to on-street confrontations with anti-petitioners like Dan Romano and Rosemarie De Angelis, who claimed false information was being circulated in an attempt to gather signatures. Romano and De Angelis claimed a First Amendment right to educate residents before they signed, but the incidents culminated in Frabotta taking out a restraining order against Romano.

In a pair of votes April 3 and April 24, following certification of the first petition, the council agreed to rescind the new rules and start over.

A do-over passed July 17, again by a 5-2 vote, allows up to six short-term renters per house, at two adults per bedroom (the first placed the cap at two adults and one infant, total). Although the requirement that a rented home be the owner’s primary residence was retained, a rule was relaxed to allow rents of up to 14 days per year, with a minimum stay of seven consecutive days, when the owner is not present.

Homeowners must obtain a city license and register their properties as shortterm rental units, with a limit of one rented living unit per lot or parcel of land in residential zones, except that the owner of a fourunit building may register two short-term rental units.

Frabotta and Murphy are not subject to the new regulations they hope to overturn. The rental unit in Murphy’s Willard Street home now passes muster under the revised rules, while Frabotta lives in the Willard Commercial District, which was never subject to the short-term rental restrictions.

However, both men say their petition is driven by what they view as the council stepping on private property rights, relying on anecdotal stories from rental opponents to do so.

“I just want them to get some facts, some real data, and not pass something based on just stories and emotion,” Frabotta said, shortly after submitting the second petition.

Both Frabotta and Murphy say they favor some form of regulation on short-term rentals, and that a Cape Elizabeth couple who purchased three west end homes that became the focal point of last summer’s complaints, went too far.

However, both say the council should convene a working group of community stakeholders to parse the data on short-term rental homes in South Portland and hammer out details of the regulatory package, rather than adopt rules they’ve called arbitrary and capricious, just to quiet a vocal contingent of Airbnb detractors in the neighborhood. By and large, councilors have maintained the view of those shortterm rental opponents, that the divide between the two sides is too wide, and that any committee convened on the topic will only spin its wheels on angry rhetoric, accomplishing nothing.

According to City Clerk Emily Scully, her office has 20 days to certify the petitions. To advance, those papers need to contain the names of 1,000 registered voters in South Portland.

Murphy said Monday that he and Frabotta turned in 1,633 signatures. He acknowledged using a pair of paid petitioners to complete the drive on time.

“Most of us who are doing this, we’re too busy to go out door-to-door collecting signatures. We’re too busy working just trying to get by. That’s one of the reasons why we rent out properties,” he said.

What happens next if the minimum threshold is met could be different this time around. The council can overturn the offending ordinances, as it did last time, or it can send the repeal question to voters.

Mayor Linda Cohen and District 3 Councilor Eben Rose have both announced they will not seek reelection in November. That means action on the repeal petition could be among their final acts as elected officials.

“I can only speak for myself on this matter. I believe it’s time to send this to referendum,” Cohen said via email Tuesday, when asked for comment.

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