South Portland voters back limits on short-term rentals

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Voters on Tuesday approved ordinance amendments that will restrict the availability of short-term home rentals.

The vote, which followed two challenges by opponents who claimed the regulations impede their property rights, was 6,375 to 5,378.

Another question, on whether the School Department should join surrounding municipalities in the Greater Sebago Educational Alliance Regional Service Center, passed 9,852 to 1,713. 

Under the approved city ordinance, unhosted short-term rentals will be banned in strictly residential neighborhoods as of Jan. 1. Hosted stays – renting out a room in a home where the owners are present – will remain legal in residential areas.

“Short-term” is defined under the amendments as rentals of fewer than 30 days. They are generally available through websites like Airbnb, HomeAway and VRBO.

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

Two similar proposals were previously approved by the City Council, but were met by recall petitions before they could be enacted. 

In a press release Wednesday morning, City Manager Scott Morelli said city staff intend to use monitoring software to identify unauthorized non-hosted rentals in residential zones and ensure that authorized hosted and non-hosted rentals are registered with the city.

“Now that the voters have spoken, city staff is in the process of selecting a consultant to help the city identify and monitor short-term rental listings across a number of online platforms,” Morelli said.

A group called Neighbors for Neighborhoods backed the council’s efforts for about a year, 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.”

On Tuesday, member Dan Romano stood in the rain outside of the South Portland Community Center polling place, waving to drivers and holding a sign that read “Homes Not Hotels.”

“If you lose your neighborhoods to commercialism, you lose a lot,” Romano said. 

Jeff Steinbrink, president of Neighbors for Neighborhoods, said Wednesday morning that he was not surprised by the results, but “surely was pleased.”

“It isn’t so much the winning as it is the (affirmation) that the place you hoped you knew comes through for you,” Steinbrink said. 

He said he was “galvanized” to join other like-minded individuals and lead the initiative last summer. Steinbrink said about a quarter of the houses in his neighborhood were operated as short-term rentals.

“It really changes the feel and fabric of the neighborhood,” he said. “You feel a hollowing out from that absence or loss of a neighbor. In their place, you have people you never have a chance to know.”

The results are a blow to other residents who rent their homes out and believe the regulations unfairly impede on their rights as property owners. 

In a letter sent to The Forecaster prior to the election, Whitney DeSena of Fairlawn Avenue urged residents to vote against the regulations, saying she felt the ordinance was written “hastily” by the council.

At first, DeSena said, she was torn. As a homeowner, she said she wants to protect her right to rent her home, but would also like to maintain the “residential feel” to her neighborhood. 

However, after reviewing the proposed changes, she said the stipulation that homeowners “may rent his or her primary residence as a short-term rental for 14 or fewer days in any rolling 365 day period at least seven consecutive days at a time without the owner present in the dwelling,” provides more leniency for those renting investment properties than it does to those “taking on the risk and inconvenience of renting their primary residence.

“The right of homeowners to rent their primary residence in order to pay for student loans, renovations, or simply to make ends meet must be protected,” DeSena said. “A revised ordinance limiting short-term rentals to primary residence single-family homes – or, in the case of multi-unit buildings, a single unit – would alleviate issues cited by both sides considerably.”

Steinbrink said he hopes opponents “accept the results,” so the city can finally put the issue to bed.

Morelli, meanwhile, said “given that (the date the amendments go into effect) is nearly two months away and that the ordinances were adopted by the City Council several months ago, the city believes there is ample time for those operating non-hosted short-term rentals in residential zones to cease operating them as such, and to begin using their properties in a manner that is compliant with city ordinances.”

School alliance

The Greater Sebago Educational Alliance Regional Service Center is designed to create efficiencies and ultimately save money on a variety of school district administrative costs.

Creation of regional service centers across the state is an initiative of the Maine Department of Education that’s specifically designed to foster improved partnerships and sharing common functions among school districts.

Services shared by districts in the Greater Sebago Education Alliance will include food purchases; professional development offerings; substitute teacher recruiting, training, and diversity recruitment; and English Language Learners intake processes.

Along with South Portland, the new regional service center would also include Portland, Scarborough, Cape Elizabeth, Westbrook, Gorham, Brunswick and School Administrative District 6 based in Standish, Regional School Unit 14 based in Windham and SAD 15 based in Gray.

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

Dan Romano outside the South Portland Community Center on Election Day on behalf of Neighbors for Neighborhoods, encouraging residents to vote for ordinance amendments that will ban unhosted short-term rentals in the city’s residential zones. 

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