A building boom in Bethel has town officials considering a crack down on short-term rentals.
Massachusetts developer James Long recently completed building on the last phase of the Eden Ridge Condominiums (right) in Bethel, which includes five other buildings. Four of the six condos in his building were bought by people who are retiring there, while the other two will be used part time. Credit: Lori Valigra / BDN

BETHEL, Maine — This western Maine town of 2,500 year-round residents prides itself on being the most beautiful mountain village in the state.

Town officials want to keep it that way.

They worry that a pandemic-fueled building boom may threaten this bucolic area of Oxford County, which mushrooms to at least four times the population in winter as skiers and winter sports lovers throng to Bethel and neighboring Newry, home to the Sunday River ski area.

Weekend and other short-term rentals, which have exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic as out-of-staters built vacation homes or sought rentals to be in a safe place, are a main concern. The town does not know how many there are, but estimated it could be more than 500, most of them single-family homes in residential neighborhoods.

It has a draft ordinance in the works that would require them to be registered, falling short of stricter limits on rentals that have been passed or considered in cities and coastal towns. Some townspeople have voiced concern about the government further regulating their properties.

“As soon as COVID-19 hit, permits exploded,” Code Enforcement Officer Randy Thurston said. “The new houses are mostly second homes where there are a lot of short-term rentals when people are not here.”

A building boom in Bethel has town officials considering a crack down on short-term rentals.
Randy Thursdon, code enforcement officer in Bethel, and Natalie Andrews, town manager, said there are at least 515 short-term rentals in the western Maine town with a year-round population of 2,500. Credit: Lori Valigra / BDN

Some 150 permits were pulled in 2022 for new construction in Bethel, including 60 for single-family homes, most of which are second homes or rentals, Thurston said. That is about the same as in 2021. So far this year, 13 of 22 permits are for new single-family homes.

Those figures are much higher than those in Rangeley, which is near the Saddleback ski resort but has less than half of the year-round population of Bethel. Some 95 permits were pulled there in 2022, 47 of them for new structures, according to Karl Kolze, the town’s deputy code enforcement officer. He suspects many were for second homes.

Neither town is sure how many homes are being used for short-term rentals, but both are concerned about their numbers and the impact on neighborhoods. Many homes in residential neighborhoods have seen noise and nuisance complaints. Bethel’s short-term rental ordinance is in the works, and Rangeley has tabled a draft ordinance for the time being.

The Bethel area had 302 active short-term rental listings or bookings for at least one day in March, according to data from AirDNA, a site that tracks vacation rentals. The average price over the last 12 months was $396 per day, higher than most comparable tourism areas. That average was $477 in February at the height of the ski season. The high numbers in such a small town may be explained by 9 in 10 houses in Bethel being second homes, many catering to the tourism industry, real estate agents said.

Alex Haba, Maddie Holmes and her dog Raymond explore the trails at Carter’s XC Ski Center in Bethel on Jan. 22, 2023. Pamela Hurson of West Paris and her daughter Destiny of Woodstock walk their dogs, Titus and Pigpen, along the Bethel Pathway on May 18, 2022. The town is trying to boost summer activities including walking and biking trails. Credit: Russ Dillingham and Andree Kehn / Sun Journal via AP

The total number of listings in the Bethel and Rangeley areas had similar averages, according to AirDNA. They each had more units than the summer mecca of Bar Harbor, which had 229 active rentals at an average annual daily price of $331. Portland, the state’s largest city, had nearly 700 active rentals with an average annual daily price of $270.

Natalie Andrews, Bethel’s town manager, said the community “isn’t slipping away to short-term rentals.” But Thurston and other officials said properties used for short-term rentals need more oversight so owners are held responsible for activities in their homes, including parties, noise and overcrowding. He is concerned by the rapid growth.

“Every time a property goes up for sale, I get a dozen calls about possible permits,” he said.

The transfer station, which is shared by Bethel, Newry and Hanover, has experienced a sharp uptick in activity the past two years. It is not uncommon to see cars driven by cleaning people come to the transfer station loaded with bags of waste strapped to their roofs, said Brian Goodrich, an attendant at the transfer station. There is so much construction waste, he said, that truck drivers sometimes try to bypass a one-load-per-day rule.

A building boom in Bethel has town officials considering a crack down on short-term rentals.
Brian Goodrich, attendant at the transfer station that services Bethel, Newry and Hanover, said he has seen car roofs piled with bags of waste and construction trucks trying to come through twice a day because of all the pandemic-related building and visitors in the area. Credit: Lori Valigra / BDN

Bethel is trying to bring order to the influx of buildings and visitors. It aired a draft short-term rental ordinance at a recent meeting, and is in the process of updating it to take residents’ comments into account. There will be another public hearing in May before a vote at the June town meeting.

The ordinance isn’t intended to cap the number of short-term rentals. It aims to protect public health and safety and to preserve the character of residential neighborhoods, where many rentals are located, said Jim Bennett, chair of Bethel’s ordinance review committee. It also aims to hold rental owners to a common set of rules and to get contacts in case of emergencies or noise complaints.

A building boom in Bethel has town officials considering a crack down on short-term rentals.
Jim Bennett, chair of Bethel’s ordinance review committee, works on a motorcycle at his business in the town, Norsemen Cycles. The town has a draft short-term rental ordinance that it is getting into final form for a vote at the town meeting in June. Credit: Lori Valigra / BDN

“We want to bring short-term rentals into safety compliance and protect the ambiance of the town,” he said.

Some towns are trying to trim the number of short-term rentals, especially those where the owners do not occupy the property. Bar Harbor voters in 2021 approved a proposal to regulate vacation rentals by creating two categories, one for owner-occupied rentals that would have a minimum two-night stay and another for non-owner occupied residences that would have a minimum four-night stay.

The town also restricted non-owner occupied vacation rentals to zones that allow commercial and lodging activities. It also banned the transfer of licenses to new owners when the properties are sold, with the goal of reducing the number of non-owner occupied rentals. South Portland has banned unhosted stays at short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods.

Maine is also evaluating the possible impact of short-term rentals on the housing shortage, with a housing commission issuing a report last November recommending that Maine establish a statewide searchable database of residential short-term rentals. It found there were 24,028 short-term rentals in Maine, or about 3 percent of housing units.

Not everyone favors Bethel’s ordinance, whose draft version would require non-refundable application fees, sufficient off-street parking and limits on the number of guests based on the number of bedrooms and the septic design. James Long, a Massachusetts-based contractor who built six condominiums in the town, sees ordinances as government overreach.

“It’s almost like putting your hand in someone’s pocket,” Long said.

A building boom in Bethel has town officials considering a crack down on short-term rentals.
Hakan Adams, manager of Brooks Bros. Hardware on Main Street in Bethel, said he sometimes avoids going out in the winter because of the mile-long traffic through town, mostly from skiers. Credit: Lori Valigra / BDN

The boom in short-term rentals and winter guests is a double-edged sword. Business is great, but there can be shortages of eggs and milk at the local supermarket and the traffic jams are annoying, said Hakan Adams, manager of Brooks Bros. Hardware on Main Street.

“We don’t go out in the winter,” said Adams, who lives about 10 miles from town. “Sometimes the traffic through Bethel is backed up for one mile out of town.”

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Lori Valigra

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...