HARPSWELL — The town Tuesday formally initiated a conversation on the increasing presence of short-term vacation rentals.
About 20 stakeholders – Airbnb hosts, rental agencies, the Harpswell Business Association, town public safety and codes staff – attended the workshop described by Board of Selectmen Chairman Rick Daniel as “an information event” to air questions, concerns, or explore what regulations might be needed.
Harpswell lacks a policy on short-term rentals, although the tradition of renting cottages to summer families has existed for decades.
“This topic has a lot to do with the economic soundness (of Harpswell),” Daniel said, signaling his support for keeping that alive amid a changing hospitality environmental.
With the advent of online rental companies such as Airbnb – which was used as shorthand on Tuesday for the many others like it – town officials have seen a rise in activity in Harpswell, and noticed other municipalities moving to regulate the burgeoning industry.
Some estimated the town has around 600 advertised rental properties, based on online searches, although one person said the number is likely much lower because some rentals are listed more than once.
The topic was first publicly addressed in a June 2016 nonresident taxpayer meeting, Daniel said; the Planning Board subsequently broached the topic, although Town Planner Mark Eyerman said it never progressed to serious consideration.
Tuesday’s hour-long meeting also delayed making decisions, with many at the table seeming to agree that the industry was bringing more good than harm to Harpswell.
Barring a major concern, “My attitude is a hands-off approach,” Selectman Kevin Johnson said at the beginning of the meeting.
If there was any concern to speak of, it didn’t come up Tuesday.
“I think we’re maybe looking for problems that maybe aren’t existing,” said David Marshall, a real estate agent with Exp Realty and short-term rentals advocate.
Airbnb hosts spoke highly of their guests, and said they hadn’t experienced bad behavior from unruly, transient guests that is often associated with short-term renters.
The group was amenable to ensuring that properties met safety standards, however.
Fire Administrator Art Howe, who has hosted guests through Airbnb, said it would make him more comfortable with the largely unsupervised industry if the town could ensure that rentals are up to code.
He volunteered to inspect local properties, which quickly gained traction among hosts and representatives from rental agencies; some suggested adding a town seal of inspection might enhance the marketability of their rental property.
The offer could eventually coalesce into a formal program – especially as the town moves to add two paid firefighters to its staff – although Eyerman cautioned selectmen against adopting regulations without the administrative capacity to enforce them.
Daniel responded by saying he wasn’t in a rush to make rules, especially given the lack of apparent problems. Safety, he said, was his primary concern.
That news appealed to Heather Allen, whose company Your Island Connection rents 57 properties in town.
Before arriving at the meeting, she reported being nervous about what to expect, but afterward said she thought it went well.
Short-term rentals are a larger problem in big cities, she surmised, especially when it comes to safety and disruptions in the rental market. Based on her experience in Harpswell, she said she isn’t sure it’s an issue.