South Portland councilors: Voters should decide short-term rental rules

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Following the return of petition signatures to nullify the city’s short-term rental restrictions, a majority of city councilors believe it’s time to put the question to voters.

Michael Frabotta of Preble Street on Monday filed a petition challenging the rules councilors adopted in July. 

It’s the second time Frabotta has challenged the city’s regulation of home rentals advertised on websites such as Airbnb and HomeAway, claiming infringement of property owners’ rights. 

Councilors have worked for about a year to adopt regulations acceptable to people on both sides of the issue. 

According to City Clerk Emily Scully, Frabotta this week returned 67 pages of signatures, which the clerk’s office has 20 days to validate. Signatures of 1,000 registered city voters are required, equal to 5 percent of registered voters who cast ballots in the last municipal election.

If the petitions are validated, the council must either comply with the intent of the petition and scrap the rules, or put the question out to referendum.

Five of the seven city councilors this week said they believe the issue should be decided by voters. 

Councilor Claude Morgan, in a telephone interview, said he believes major revisions and concessions were made in the second look at short-term rental restrictions last month, and the issue should go before voters this November.

“We really tried to honor petitioners, and made radical changes to meet the motives of petitioners,” he said.

He said the City Council has drawn a line on unhosted stays in residential neighborhoods and believes in separating living spaces from commercial ventures. 

Mayor Linda Cohen, and Councilors Maxine Beecher, Susan Henderson, and Adrian Dowling on Wednesday all agreed a referendum vote should decide the debate. 

Councilor Kate Lewis could not be reached for comment. 

Councilor Eben Rose said the July changes to the city ordinance should be repealed because they they will be overturned by a referendum and the city has already spent $16,000 in legal fees on the matter.

He said the city’s existing rules are sufficient, and what is needed is a more structured, consistent approach to enforcement.

On July 17,  the council voted 5-2 in favor of a re-crafted short-term rental ordinance, with Rose and Dowling opposed.

Under the rules, unhosted stays were banned in strictly residential neighborhoods. Hosted stays, such as renting out a room in a home where the owners are present, would be allowed in residential sections. 

Unhosted stays are allowed in mixed-use and commercial neighborhoods. 

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

There are four key changes in the ordinance adopted last month, although it preserved 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 a revision approved in July requires owners to identify sufficient onsite parking and restricts the number of guest vehicles to the number of onsite 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 on vacation.

The restrictions would have come into effect Jan. 1, 2019., but are now on hold pending further decision by the council and possibly, voters at the polls. 

Reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or at jlaaka@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JulietteLaaka. 

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