FREEPORT — A group of innkeepers want the town to adopt an ordinance, similar to one just approved in South Portland, that would regulate short-term housing rentals.
Robin Baron, who owns The James Place Inn with his wife, Tori, said he and other hospitality providers aren’t against competition, but would like their competition held to the same standards they must meet.
The competition includes vacation rental websites like Airbnb, VRBO and HomeAway, which match travelers with owners of private homes and apartments who are willing to rent rooms or entire houses for stays of usually only a few nights at a time.
While the struggle initially was a business issue, Baron said, it’s become more than that and now is an issue of safety and equality.
In order to run his inn, Baron said he’s required to pay for, receive, and maintain numerous licenses and certifications, including fire safety inspections and a victualer’s license.
“All of these things are costs we incur to maintain a safe, lively business that (short-term renters) don’t,” Baron said. “Because I’m in the commercial zone and running a business, I also pay substantially more in taxes.”
Further, there is apprehension around how negative experiences with short-term rentals could impact the reputation of commercial lodging establishments.
“We have a standard of performance. And now all of the sudden, we have an interloper that comes in and advertises,” Baron said. “You have to be super careful because you never know what you’re going to get. … You don’t know if it’s safe … clean … (or) if it’s legal because a lot of places have zoning that restricts leasing a short-term rental.”
Baron also said people buying properties solely to rent them out for short terms would affect the community, including support for schools and businesses.
“The people that we really want here to support the community are not able to find affordable housing,” he said.
Kelleigh Dulany, co-owner of the Brewster House Bed and Breakfast, said she feels it is important to address issues at a local level to “at least show support of local businesses and the community by having a point of view.”
The South Portland City Council on Feb. 20 enacted an ordinance that defines short-term rentals as any stay 30 days or less. The ordinance bans non-owner-occupied rentals in all residential neighborhoods and requires rentals to be registered with the city. Owners offering hosted stays will have to present documentation by April 15 to prove the rental property is their primary residence, with failure to do so punishable by fines.
Rentals would also be subject to inspections by the Fire Department with 48-hour notice. The ordinance also caps how many people are allowed to stay in a room at one time in various city zones.
According to data provided by Airbnb, in 2017 there were 60 hosts in Freeport and 2,800 inbound guest arrivals who stayed an average of 2.8 nights. The typical Freeport host rents for 22 nights, earning $5,200 per year.
Josh Meltzer, head of Northeast policy for Airbnb, said Feb. 27 that “Airbnb is proud to help dozens of Freeport families open their doors to travelers from across the country and around the world, helping locals age in place in the communities they love and boosting the bottom line for small businesses that rely on the tourist economy.”
According to Baron and Dulany, South Portland encapsulated what the Freeport business owners would like to see addressed in an ordinance. But before sending it to the Town Council, they plan on tweaking or omitting sections that are specific to South Portland, such as those that apply only to the city’s zoning.
“We haven’t decided on any specifics yet. … Most points seem to be applicable to Freeport, but we have to make sure some don’t infringe on things that already exist here,” Baron said. “I don’t see (South Portland’s ordinance) and our draft being dramatically different.”
Baron and Dulany stressed that they’re not asking the town to ban short-term rentals, but rather to “level the playing field” for all hosts. They anticipate presenting their draft to the council in the next two or three weeks.
“Freeport is a beautiful, well-known, highly successful tourist destination,” Baron said. “By opening it up to this sort of situation, you have the possibility of getting a negative reputation that affects all of the other businesses in town. … What we’re trying to do is nip this in the bud as legitimately as possible.”
Robin Baron, left, of The James Place Inn, Kelleigh Dulany, of the Brewster House Bed & Breakfast, and several other Freeport hospitality business owners want the town to regulate short-term housing rentals.