YORK, Maine — Are those who rent their York properties using Airbnb and similar online sites being unfairly targeted by a town proposal to regulate the use? Is an ordinance necessary to provide code enforcement and public safety with the necessary mechanism to deal with scofflaws? Does the proposal have enough teeth to protect neighborhoods from loud parties and cars galore, or too many to stifle a homeowner trying to make a few extra bucks?
These are questions the Board of Selectmen will consider when it holds a public hearing this month on a proposed short-term residential rental ordinance. York is not alone. Towns, cities and even states are grappling with the issue. Portland and Portsmouth are still studying it. Legislation died in Maine last session and went to a study committee in New Hampshire.
“This is not a new issue,” Town Manager Steve Burns said. “I introduced a similar idea to the Planning Board 10 years ago. The difference today is that the issue is more magnified because of the ease of renting someplace on the Internet. The economy is evolving differently than the regulatory framework.”
Selectmen directed the Planning Board to craft the ordinance after complaints from neighbors of houses built by an absentee owner specifically for the online rental site audience. Nonresident owners and full-time residents who rent a portion of their home would be covered by the ordinance. The former would have to get a business license like a hotel or bed and breakfast; the latter would need a less onerous permit.
Owners would be required to follow several regulations, including parking, trash pickup, septic system capacity and fire safety.
“The biggest change here is that we’re defining use and giving code enforcement and fire a way to enforce regulations,” Planning Board Chairman Amy Phalon said. “If something goes wrong, it sets up a system so the neighbors have a way to file a complaint with the code enforcement officer and the CEO has a way to enforce the ordinance. That’s really the goal. If something goes wrong, we have a way to correct the problem.”
At a crowded Planning Board public hearing last month, residents spoke uniformly against the ordinance. Many expressed concern the town already has too many regulations and making homeowners pay for a permit to rent a room seems like overkill.
“The ordinance will add more confusion and ambiguity than solutions,” Ed McKenna said. “It will have sweeping financial implications for some homeowners and perhaps the community at large.”
This kind of sentiment was heard in Augusta last year, when bills to regulate the industry at the state level were not enacted. The bills were supported by the hospitality industry, which argues these establishments should be regulated like their businesses are. But a large contingent of people who rent rooms or houses using online services spoke in opposition.
That doesn’t negate concerns of York homeowners who told selectmen and police that short-term rental houses created issues in residential neighborhoods. Police, firefighters and code enforcement officers said they were being called to investigate situations over which they had limited control.
Last summer, police received nuisance calls from neighbors of York Beach short-term rental properties who were concerned about noise at all hours of the night. Police pointed to at least one incident in which renters caused “thousands of dollars of damage because they turned it into a party house.” Fire Chief David Bridges recalled entering an old Victorian home that had housed so many people that “kids were staying in a closet.”
Code enforcement officer Amber Harrison said those same houses could have life safety issues. “Someone can pull a permit for a single-family dwelling and can rent it out by the day or week now and we don’t have jurisdiction over it,” she said. “What happens when you have 20 people on a septic system meant for four, trash that piles up, or 10 cars parked on a small lot? There’s all sorts of issues.”
Phalon said she also asks people to look at the situation from a fairness perspective. Hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts are “very strongly regulated” in York. “Tourism is an essential part of the nature of our community,” she said. “It’s not fair that people are able to operate similar businesses without the infrastructure required of a B and B. We’re trying to be fair across the boards.”
But residents warned recently of municipal overreach, particularly concerned about the provision requiring on-site homeowners to secure a permit — less onerous and less expensive than a business license for absentee property owners but still requiring regular inspections.
“I understand there are a lot of different angles and some of those who have been speaking up may have an obvious interest,” Burns said. “Personally, I think it ought to be regulated. People who own their homes can’t do their own plumbing or electrical work anymore. Things change. And this is an up and coming issue.”
The proposed ordinance will come before selectmen for a public hearing Feb. 27. Chairman Robert Palmer said he has not spoken with his colleagues about the issue and is waiting to “hear what the public has to say on that. There’s obviously some sort of issue here. We’ve heard complaints.”
He said he has concerns about overregulation, but also said short-term rentals represent “a dynamic market.” He said there would be enough time for the board to tweak the language and bring the proposal back for a second public hearing before it goes on the ballot in May, if that’s what the board decides.
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