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Tensions High As South Portland Reconsiders Maine’s Most Restrictive Airbnb Rules

Nora Flaherty
Maine Public
South Portland City Councilor Claude Morgan on Willard Beach. Morgan represents the neighborhood, which has a rapidly growing number of short-term rental houses.

Cities and towns all over Maine are trying to figure out how to deal with a proliferation of short-term vacation rentals, like Airbnbs.

In some communities, like Bar Harbor and Old Orchard Beach, they’re an extension of a vacation rental economy that already exists. But in South Portland — the third most popular community in Maine for Airbnbs — the rapid increase is causing acrimony among neighbors and repeated attempts at passing the strongest regulations in the state.

South Portland’s City Council decided Tuesday to send to referendum its second effort at that ordinance, after two successful petition drives forced it to reconsider. Whatever happens, the issue isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.

Peter Stanton lives in South Portland’s highly sought Willard Beach area, on a small, shady, leafy street set back from the road. You can see — and smell — the ocean, from his yard.

He and his wife have lived on the street since 1997. But Stanton says in the last few years there have been some big changes — two of which directly abut his property line.

Credit Nora Flaherty / Maine Public
Maine Public
Willard Beach resident Peter Stanton stands in his backyard, in front of the two unhosted AirBnB rental houses that abut his property. There are two more across the street. Stanton is one of the chief proponents of South Portland's short-term rental ordinance.

“This house sits on an extremely small lot, directly on the property line, and it looms. This yellow house is a similar situation, it’s again on an extremely small lot, and it just flipped last year,” Stanton says.

The houses are what are known as unhosted short-term rentals. There are two more across the street.

“You’re always on edge, every couple of days, every week, new people — you don’t know what to expect. It gets under your skin,” Stanton says. “It doesn’t have to be about noise. It’s not about people doing obnoxious things that you have to call the police on.”

If voters pass the ordinance in November, these houses, which are in a residential zone, won’t be allowed to be short-term rentals anymore. But some others, in commercially zoned parts of Willard, would. If you live on Stanton’s street — or any other in the city — and want to rent out your spare room to make some extra cash, that’s OK too, as long as you abide by the parking regulations that are part of the ordinance.

“We support that people should be able to make ends meet, some day I may want to make ends meet, that’s OK,” he says.

What people wouldn’t be allowed to do in residential neighborhoods like Stanton’s is go away for the month and rent out your whole house. For Stanton, and other supporters of the ordinance, these rules align with common sense.

Credit Nora Flaherty / Maine Public
Maine Public File
An Airbnb rental house in Willard Beach.

Paul Vose owns an unhosted short-term rental property in a residential neighborhood of South Portland that would be illegal under the new ordinance. He said at a South Portland City Council meeting late last month that while he gets that people in Willard may feel overrun, that’s not true for the whole city.

“This has become a conversation of extremes - in my opinion, to an extent, fearmongering. ‘All the neighborhoods are going away and turning into short-term rentals, and they’re going to wreck your neighborhood, and all the kids are going away.’ That isn’t what we need,” he says.

“The city is not trying to ban short-term rentals,” says city councilor Claude Morgan, who represents the Willard neighborhood. “In fact, the regulations we’re proposing, the way in which we want to manage this, is very middle stream compared to what many other cities and municipalities worldwide have done.”

Boston and New York City, for example, have both banned unhosted short-term rentals under some circumstances. But in Maine, no one else has so far explicitly prohibited short-term rentals based on zoning.

Communities have imposed caps on short-term rentals, charged fees or limited how far an owner can live from the community, but the zoning requirement rankles people who oppose South Portland’s regulation.

“I’ve lived in Maine all my life, I’m a native Mainer, my family has been here for centuries,” says South Portland councilor Adrian Dowling, who twice voted against the ordinance. “The Maine that I grew up in, people had very much a live and let live attitude.”

A common point of debate in these kinds of restrictions is that they’re a violation of property rights. Dowling says he’s a realist and understands why you can’t have the same kinds of development in dense communities like South Portland that you can have in rural areas. But he finds the restrictions unreasonable.

“I also want people to, within reason, be able to do reasonable things with their homes that are not harmful or disruptive to their neighbors,” he says.

Dowling says he has “no sympathy” for investor-renters who buy several properties — instead, he tends to talk about homeowners trying to make ends meet.

“The vast majority of them are not making huge wads of cash. They’re making enough to cover medical bills, to continue maintaining the structure and pay the property taxes,” he says.

In testimony it submitted opposing the ordinance, Airbnb also uses the phrase “vast majority” when describing the kind of owners that Dowling refers to, although it doesn’t provide more granular data. It also doesn’t provide data that break down how much of the money earned from Airbnbs comes from those hosts and how much comes from investors.

Dowling says, when it comes to regulation, he thinks the city can find a middle way.

“I think the key to that is creating effective regulation, but finding a way to do it that is fair to the people who are not big-time, out-of-state investors,” he says. “If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we address this problem?”

Dowling says what’s missing is good information on how short-term rentals are affecting South Portland. He says he wants to see more research, but that takes time.

As South Portland grapples with the issue, the issue is growing, and supporters of the zoning ordinance, like Daniel Romano, speaking at that same City Council meeting, say the clock is ticking.

“What do we lose with short-term rentals? My neighbors across the street are going to have a baby. I’m so excited about this — another child in my neighborhood that I get to watch grow up,” he says. “We lose that sense of community.”

New numbers from Airbnb say rentals in Maine were up almost 50 percent this summer from last year, as were home sales and prices in Cumberland County.

Nora is originally from the Boston area but has lived in Chicago, Michigan, New York City and at the northern tip of New York state. Nora began working in public radio at Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor and has been an on-air host, a reporter, a digital editor, a producer, and, when they let her, played records.