South Portland’s short-term rental regulations go to the ballot box

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Residents on Nov. 6 will be asked whether they’re in favor of regulations banning unhosted short-term rentals in residential areas.

The question has dogged city councilors for more than a year, been through two regulation proposals and two petition recalls, and has divided residents. Some argue that the measure impedes on property rights, others fear their neighborhoods are being “overrun” by vacation homes.

A group calling themselves Neighbors for Neighborhoods is asking voters to support the ordinance if they want to be able to “buy or live in a family home that is not surrounded by transient hotels.”

Those arguing the other side say the proposed ordinance goes too far in limiting a property owner’s ability to rent their home. Some have also created a Facebook page, asking voters to vote against the proposal.

If passed, the regulations will be enforceable as of Jan. 1, 2019. If the question fails, existing zoning regulations will remain in effect.

At the core of the proposed ordinance, unhosted stays are banned in strictly residential neighborhoods. Hosted stays – renting out a room in a home where the owners are present –would remain legal in residential areas.

Unhosted guests would also still be allowed in mixed-use and commercial neighborhoods under the ordinance.

Short-lived rental restrictions were adopted in February, then repealed in April after opponents collected enough signatures to force the council to revisit the decision.

In July, the council re-crafted the ordinance, with four key changes, while preserving the core of the original restrictions: non-hosted, short-term rentals would still be barred in residential sections of the city.

The amendments allow two adults per room, with a cap of six people in an owner-occupied rental. Owners of apartment buildings with at least four units would be able to rent two apartments for fewer than 30 days, as long as they live in one of the other units, and all short-term rentals would have to be licensed by the city.

The ordinance originally called for the availability of at least four parking spaces to accommodate guests, but the revision requires owners to identify sufficient on-site parking, and restricts the number of guest vehicles to the number of on-site parking spaces available.

Another amendment allows unattached housing units on the same lot to be considered hosted rentals.

The council dropped language that would have prevented people from renting their homes for a week or two while they are out of town.

The ordinance was scheduled to take effect Aug. 7, but the council on Aug. 21 voted to postpone that action after the city received a referendum petition challenging the rules.

On Sept. 4, councilors voted to refer the ordinances – one that addressed zoning, and another regarding the licenses, permits and business regulations – to the Nov. 6 ballot. Councilor Eben Rose and former Councilor Adrian Dowling voted in opposition.

Just as the issue has caused turmoil on the council, it’s also been polarizing for residents.

Neighbors for Neighborhoods’ website says they came together to protect their neighborhoods from being “overrun by short-term rentals like AirBnb, VRBO (and) HomeAway, to name a few.”

“We do not want to live next to homes that have been transformed into transit hotels filled with a revolving door of strangers,” the page says.

At the Oct. 16 council meeting, Jeff Steinbrink, of Cottage Road, said he is “proud” to be associated with the group and its advocacy of the ordinances that he saw the council “work so hard to pass.”

“This is a contest. We are vying with one another,” Steinbrink said. “We are not against short-term rentals. … We’re behind (the) ordinance that supports hosted short-term rentals. It seems to me and us very generous.”

In a letter to The Forecaster, Susan Holland, who lives with her husband in Bellingham, Washington, and maintains a small cottage near Willard Beach, said she and her husband stay several times a year in South Portland to spend time with their two sons.

When they’re in Bellingham, the couple has a “local caretaker oversee (the South Portland) house and be on call to guests … and neighbors.”

In response to assertions that short-term rentals are like hotels, Holland said she’s “never stayed in a hotel with someone else’s clothes in the closet.”

Someday, Holland said, she and her husband hope to retire to the home in South Portland, but couldn’t afford to keep it without the rental income they now receive. She said she rents to a maximum of five people, who are usually related.

Holland said her neighbors in South Portland are friends, and she and her husband get “upset” when they’re “categorized as rich investors from out-of-state.”

“If we could afford to keep this house and not rent it out, it would just sit empty,” Holland said. “That’s worse for the neighborhood.”

Holland said she isn’t against regulation, but doesn’t think the ordinance, as proposed, is the way to do it.

“We are all for reasonable regulations and licensing, and have suggested many regulations to City Council,” she said. “Done right, we believe it can unite the community rather than divide it.”

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or jvansaun@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

Two weeks before the Nov. 6 election, campaign signs line the streets of South Portland both in support and opposition of an ordinance that would ban unhosted short-term rentals.

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