FREEPORT — Airboat noise is generating an unusual number of complaints in town.
Town Manager Peter Joseph Tuesday told the Town Council there have recently been between 15 and 30 complaints about noise created by the craft.
The council Sept. 4 also discussed what Chairwoman Sarah Tracy called a “new area of conflict” in the ongoing debate over the regulation of short-term rentals.
Tracy reminded councilors that the noise and rentals discussions were on the agenda for “transparency sake,” and weren’t to suggest that action would be taken on either.
“We wanted to be sure the council is aware that these issues are ongoing and make sure we all have the same information and direct the issue in the way the council sees fit, should we decide we want to direct it,” she said.
After receiving concerns about airboat use, Joseph said town staff sought legal advice on whether the noise could be addressed by a local ordinance. They were referred to a 2005 opinion from the Maine attorney general’s office to the town of Brunswick, which states that municipalities in Maine are preempted by state law from regulating the operating of watercraft, including airboats.
The town can enforce state law regarding boat noise levels, which prohibits motorboats from exceeding a noise level of 90 decibels when stationary and 75 when operating, but is prohibited from adding or enforcing a local ordinance or regulation.
Town attorney Philip Saucier of Bernstein Shur believes the statute guidelines are still accurate, according to Joseph.
However, Joseph said the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife does not have a set of measurement standards, considers the decibel limit “unenforceable” and is seeking to address that.
“The statute exists, (but) the procedure to measure that … has never been (created) or used,” Joseph said. “… If there was guidance in that statute, the town could enforce it.”
Resident Michael Ashby, who owns and operates an airboat for clamming in Freeport, said he felt targeted by the council’s discussion and that the council is trying to “get rid of him.”
Tracy replied that was false and said Joseph’s reports was simply a “general communication about an ongoing problem” that is not particular to any one operator.
“It’s a general discussion of how or if we can regulate … sounds emitted from (watercraft),” she said. “… We have received guidance to date … that we are not at liberty to regulate the noise within Freeport. … I want to correct that because that’s not fair.”
Joseph emphasized that if the state starts enforcing the law, it would apply to all watercraft, not just airboats.
Following what Tracy said were two recent instances about single-family dwellings in one of the town’s residential districts being used for commercial use, Code Enforcement Officer Nicholas Adams suggested how he would handle complaints.
Because the town does not have a short-term rental ordinance, Adams said there would be no zoning violation if a single-family dwelling is rented for any period of time if the family or group renting it were occupying the entire structure as a dwelling.
However, if the dwelling is rented to a commercial entity that is conducting business on the premises, such as car rentals, that could be a violation of town zoning and not permitted in the district. Adams noted the violations could be hard to enforce without solid evidence.
“Additionally, if the single-family home was rented and … occupied as a lodging house, boarding house, fraternity house, hotel, or club … then that also may be a zoning violation,” Adams said.
Joseph said the renter or occupier doesn’t matter as much as the use.
“If five employees brought laptops and started doing car registrations out of the driveway … that would be a commercial use or misuse,” he said.
Adams said he would issue a notice and an order to correct any violations he finds.
“If the property owner is not willing to bring the property back into compliance … then I would be required to proceed with a land use citation,” he said.
This spring, the council more than doubled the fines for noise ordinance violations after a series of noise complaints from residents who live near short-term housing rentals, mostly in densely populated residential zones. It was explicitly stated that citations and fines would be assessed against the property owner, rather than the individual creating the violation.
Vice Chairman John Egan said he thought the council was right to continue gathering details and perspectives on the issue.
“I have a feeling it’s only going to get more intense and I have a feeling we’re going to start getting, maybe not noise complaints because our noise ordinance is more specific now, but … more complaints about traffic in town and usage,” Egan said.