SOUTH PORTLAND — Peter Cooke is a 17-year resident of Willard Beach.
Five blocks away from his primary home he also owns a rental property that he advertises on Airbnb. He has owned the second property for five years, rents it on a short-term basis in June, July and August, and has a winter tenant for the remainder of the year.
Surprisingly, he said he has the same concerns as his neighbors who oppose allowing non-owner occupied rentals in residential communities.
Cooke, who is also president of the South Portland Homeowners Short Term Rental Association, said at one point there were three short-term rental properties surrounding his primary home.
“It is not ideal. I empathize with (neighbors’) concerns, I agree with them,” he said, although he also said the process can be managed and does not have to lead to a ban.
“That’s what I’m hopeful for,” he said, emphasizing fairness is the association’s primary objective.
What’s not surprising is that Cooke sounds conflicted. Whether and how the city should regulate short-term rentals is pitting neighbors against each other in what is described as an emotionally charged issue by people on both sides, many of whom also agree it could have been resolved years ago.
Complaints that have forced the issue into the spotlight include anecdotes of loud partying, constant traffic, and neighborhoods becoming more transient and less residential.
There are more than 300 short-term rentals listed in South Portland on Airbnb and other online sites, City Manager Scott Morelli said Wednesday. He called it an issue that has evolved as the websites have gained popularity.
Morelli said Code Enforcement Officer Matt LeConte and other city officials are not deciding whether people operating short-term rentals are within their rights under existing city codes. Morelli said the city’s attorney suggested making amendments to address the issue, and officials are waiting for the council to set policy.
The council will hold a fourth workshop on the subject Jan. 24, which irked some residents eager for swift action that would prohibit certain types of rentals in residential neighborhoods.
Cooke said he does believe there are too many short-term rentals in the city and in his neighborhood. But he said a cap – not a ban – is one way to find resolution.
He is also advocating for a study committee to inform the council on how to manage the issue. Cooke said the public process for expressing opinions on the matter has solely been through emotionally charged testimony at public meetings.
Cooke said he has asked the city whether his rental property is in violation of current zoning, and has not received a clear answer; he said he was told he is in violation one day, and was told he wasn’t in violation a day later.
Part of the problem may lie with the way city ordinances are written.
District 2 City Councilor Claude Morgan, who represents the Willard Beach community, said the city’s land use regulations are built on affirmative language – they explain what is allowed, and not what isn’t.
Morgan said in residential zones, uses such as motels, hotels, and bed-and-breakfast inns are not listed as permitted uses, as they are in commercial zones. He said his interpretation of the existing ordinance language is that short-term rentals, therefore, are not allowed in residential zones.
Morgan, who believes non-owner-occupied rentals are incompatible with the fabric of residential neighborhoods, said he hopes language will be in place by the end of February that resolves the uncertainty.
Tex Haeuser, city director of planning and development, said his department does not want to discuss the interpretation of current land-use regulations while the council is developing policy.
“We are essentially holding off on having a perspective, pending action by the council,” he said Tuesday.
That leaves property owners like Cooke in a bind.
“I do not want to be in violation,” he said, noting the confusion is not fair to anyone, especially when some city councilors contend rentals are illegal in some neighborhoods. “I do not intend to take advantage of my neighborhood in any way.”
Advocates of tighter controls, however, cite properties like the one Cooke rents as examples of the problem.
Louise Tate, a retired educator, has lived on Deake Street for 20 years. To her, there is a significant difference between owner-occupied rentals and those that are non-owner occupied.
She said the attitude of some absentee landlords who can afford not to live in the homes they rent makes the debate smack of socioeconomic class structure.
“There are tones of that, on the non-owner-occupied side,” she said, that led her from being open to compromise, to no compromises when she felt her community and neighbors were disrespected.
“It’s also an entitlement issue,” Tate said. “You don’t have a right to do whatever you want with a house.
“It’s not easy to make a living in Maine, and you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, and I support that. What I don’t support is people who buy multiple homes in the neighborhood and rent them out to large groups.”
Tate added she is grateful to live in the Willard Beach community, and doesn’t want businesses operating in her residential neighborhood.
Tate said her property has buffers her neighbors’ lots do not, including a larger area and trees to help mitigate noise. But she knows her neighbors are significantly impacted by the rentals and associated activity.
She said when she first became aware of the issue, she had mixed feelings, and thought if people have been doing this for about a decade, and they were trying to make ends meet, she could be open to compromises.
But the discussion in recent months has changed her opinion.
“I am unequivocally against any non-owner-occupied rentals,” she said. “It’s clearly against the zone. My feeling is, the ordinance exists for reasons. They’ve been thought out, passed and supported, so why aren’t we enforcing them?”
Tate said what she doesn’t understand is how city officials can appear ambivalent about what seems to be pretty clear. She said she is exploring her own rights and what she can do as a resident, and being her own advocate.
“I want the city to stand by its ordinances,” she said. “It’s not about nuisance, it’s about the fact it’s against land-use regulations in our community.”
Cooke, meanwhile, said he may have to decide whether to sell his rental property if the council agrees with Tate and others who share her opinion that non-owner-occupied rentals should be banned from residenital areas.
Deake Street in South Portland’s Willard Beach neighborhood is part of a residential zone that is also a popular area for short-term housing rentals.