Visitors from Massachusetts enjoy a dip in Meddybemps Lake in mid-June at their short-term rental in Alexander, near the Canadian border. Credit: Courtesy of Margaret Tessler

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Short-term rentals draw ire in many parts of Maine, especially in coastal areas where they are accused of pushing up housing prices, decreasing long-term rentals and making nearby properties less desirable.

In less-traveled areas of the state, however, they are welcomed contributors to the local economy. Take the rentals on Meddybemps Lake in Washington County, a 15-mile drive to the Canadian border. The Down East lake is bordered by four sparsely populated towns, Baileyville with 1,318 people as of 2020, Alexander at 525, Baring at 201 and Meddybemps at 139.

“I see more business because of short-term rentals, which are mostly seasonal here,” Steve Clark, owner of the Nook & Cranny Restaurant in Baileyville, said. “I think they are accepted as helping the local economy.”

In other parts of the state with denser populations, cities such as Portland and Bangor with critical housing shortages have been regulating short-term rentals and fining those who don’t adhere to the rules. Clark said long-term, year-round rentals are in short supply in his area, too, but that is mostly because many places shut down in the winter. Some of his employees commute almost an hour to work. 

The benefits are also seen by Jean Lawlis, who owns a cottage on the lake in Alexander that she rents through the website Vrbo. Her renters go out to eat and enjoy local attractions during their visits, and she employs a maid to clean and a teenager to mow the grass.

“Our area, around Calais, has seen a difficult economy for a long time,” said Lawlis, who was born in Calais, a 20-minute drive north of Meddybemps.

Lawlis, a former town councilor in Hampden and a retired engineer and math teacher, inherited the home from her father after he died. She decided to rent it to keep it in the family and to pay for taxes and maintenance, including a new roof that will be needed soon.

“If you are not using it, why not share it with people?” she said. “A family vacation is important.”

Joseph Reynolds, a Massachusetts resident who rented the Lawlis cottage last summer with his family, said there is a legitimate concern about losing a lot of affordable housing, especially the kind rented out by large corporations.

But he chose the cottage because he grew up in that area of Maine and wanted a more personal experience for his vacation. He wanted to patronize local businesses. The peace and quiet of the location also attracted him.

“There is so much less light pollution,” he said. “We could pretend the cottage was ours, at least during the vacation.”

The 2,000-square-foot cottage with three bedrooms and two bathrooms rents for $250 per night. Lawlis will adjust the price for people renting it for longer periods, such as two women who stayed through the winter while completing internships in Calais.

The cottage is right on the lake with a sandy beach where the Reynolds’ dog and kids enjoyed swimming. Ten-mile-long Meddybemps Lake is known as one of the best smallmouth bass lakes in eastern Maine, although there also are white perch, landlocked salmon and other fisheries in it.

It is quiet without a lot of boats, said Diane James, who rents out her two-bedroom cabin with a loft on the lake for $200 per night. Most rentals are from two nights to one week. The Meddybemps camp attracts people from all over the place, including Europe. She and her family live in a second cabin on the same property. They shut both for the winter at the end of October.

A short-term rental overlooking Meddybemps Lake in Meddybemps. Credit: Courtesy of Diane James

As local attractions, James points to activities including kayaking on the lake and hiking the Bold Coast and other trails in Cutler, a 50-minute drive south of Meddybemps. Eastport, Lubec and Campobello Island are nearby day trips. The Canadian border is a 25-minute drive to St. Stephen, New Brunswick.

James, a semi-retired nurse practitioner, said she understands concerns about short-term rentals, but like Lawlis, she ended up with an extra property bought from a neighbor and it provides extra income.

She has been renting the property through Airbnb for about five years, and has had few issues other than some people leaving a mess when they check out. She likes the fact that Airbnb handles payments and financial transactions for the property.

That also looks attractive to Susan Morken Olsanski, who lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana, but whose husband’s grandparents are from the Meddybemps area. They own two homes on the lake, one that they live in during the summer and a second summer camp that she is considering renting out short-term. They have summered at the lake for 27 years.

She has consulted with James about the pros and cons of renting, including potential damage to the property and theft, and learned that through the online rental websites, she can control who rents the camp to some extent. She wants no pets and to have groups of no more than four people.

James has similar limits, as does Lawlis, who prefers renting to families but allows pets. She shared advice about renting for people who are used to being by themselves.

“Set your own rules and realize that other people may be coming down to the water to sit on chairs you put out and you might hear them talking,” she said.

Lori Valigra, senior reporter for economy and business, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...