Two fishermen motor past the fishing boat Money Shot at it is tied up at the Stonington Fish Pier in Stonington, Maine on Monday, December 21, 2020. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

Roughly three-quarters of short-term rental properties believed to be operating in Stonington were registered with the town by the June 30 deadline. Those that didn’t now will have to go through the town’s new permitting process as if they are brand new, town officials said.

Town officials believe there are around 145 short-term rental properties in Stonington, based upon data compiled and posted online by the website AirDNA. That’s about 15 percent of Stonington’s estimated housing stock of roughly 900 units, according to 2020 U.S. Census data.

Stonington, a picturesque coastal town with a large lobster fishing fleet and scenery dominated by rocky ocean shorelines, and the neighboring town of Deer Isle have been trying to find ways to boost the availability of local affordable housing. The lack of affordable housing has become acute in many parts of Maine where seasonal residents and commercial vacation rental operators have bought up much of the local housing supply.

The shortage of such housing makes it difficult for young families with children to live in affected towns and for local employers to recruit year-round employees. Fishermen who work out of Stonington often commute long distances to get to and from their boats, and the lack of such housing was cited by Island Nursing Home officials in Deer Isle as a significant factor to its decision in November 2021 to shut down, though officials hope to reopen it.

Linda Nelson, Stonington’s community and economic development director, said that around 100 short-term rental properties were registered by the June 30 deadline set by the town and will be grandfathered. Those that did not meet that deadline still can be permitted, but must get conditional use approval from Stonington’s planning board to continue operating, she said.

Owners of short-term rental properties that did not make the June 30 deadline to qualify for grandfathered status have until Sept. 1 to get planning board approval for their rental properties, Nelson said. Owners of year-round rental properties have the same Sept. 1 deadline.

Rental property owners who fail to register and get approval from the town could face fines of $100 or more per day, according to the ordinance passed by voters in March.

Nelson said the town has not set a numerical limit on the number of short-term rentals allowed in Stonington, but that voters did approve some restrictions that are intended to limit how many there are.

The town established two categories of short-term rentals — one for those that are owner-occupied or owned by local residents, and another for those owned by absentee landlords who live out of town.

Voters set a minimum distance of 1,000 feet in a straight line between short-term rentals owned by absentee landlords, and set a maximum growth rate of 50 percent for any increase in absentee-owned rentals from one year to the next.  The intent of those restrictions is to allow local residents to continue to rent out properties by the week in order to earn an income, but to restrict the extent to which out-of-town commercial investors buy up the town’s existing housing stock, according to Nelson.

By restricting the growth of short-term rentals, the town hopes that more of the town’s housing stock will go toward the year-round rental market or remain affordable for local residents looking for places to live, Nelson said.

“It’s difficult to maintain a year-round economy without a year-round workforce,” she said.

Nelson said that it likely will be the end of the year before Stonington officials have a grasp on how many rental properties there are in town and how many landlords have complied with the new restrictions.

“It will take us another six months to have an understanding of where everything stands,” she said.

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....