This two-family home on Willard Beach, owned by John Murphy, is one of a growing number of short-term rental properties in South Portland – a subject of ongoing debate by the City Council. Murphy said, “The city has created this situation by letting things go.” Staff photo by Ben McCanna

SOUTH PORTLAND — For City Councilor Eben Rose, the answer to the polarizing fight over short-term rentals is right there in black and white.

The city’s land-use ordinance defines an “inn” as a business renting one to 20 rooms to transient guests. Inns aren’t permitted in the city’s residential neighborhoods, so Rose figures most people who are buying, renovating and renting out entire homes in South Portland for short stays, on popular websites such as Airbnb and HomeAway, are breaking the law.

“As I see it, we have violators,” Rose said. “They are running inns by definition, and they are already not allowed in residential zones.”

And there are a lot of them. Among 282 short-term rentals in the city, about 200 are single-family homes that are not owner-occupied, allowing travelers to rent a whole house or apartment for a few days or a few weeks, according to Host Compliance, a third-party web service.

City Councilor Eben Rose, photographed last week outside his home in the Stanwood Park neighborhood of South Portland, is citing city ordinances to argue against the legality of short-term rental properties. He said some property owners “are running inns by definition.” Staff photo by Ben McCanna

As the battle over short-term rentals heads for its fourth council workshop on Wednesday, Rose has been the lone voice on the seven-member panel to push for city staff members to enforce the existing land-use or zoning ordinance now that the problem has come to light.

Like other councilors, Rose worries that the proliferation of short-term rentals is eroding the city’s residential neighborhoods, removing already scarce housing from the market and driving home prices even higher. But Rose also believes that the determination of city officials to ignore the existing ordinance and instead draft new licensing regulations for short-term rentals undermines the enforceability of all zoning ordinances.

“It weakens them all,” Rose said. “This is an enforcement issue, (but) right now our land-use ordinance is off the table and it’s been off the table for months.”

‘LETTING THINGS GO’

At the same time, many short-term rental operators say the few noisy, out-of-control properties that riled the city’s seaside neighborhoods last summer are the exception, not the rule.

They say city officials shouldn’t suddenly crack down after allowing short-term rentals to operate unfettered for several years. They’ve formed an association and hope the council will establish a committee of stakeholders to work on a mutually acceptable solution.

“The city has created this situation by letting things go,” said John Murphy, who has operated a short-term rental in a two-family home on Willard Beach for about 15 years and claims city officials were aware of it.

“They’ve allowed this to get heated on both sides and they’ve pitted one neighbor against another,” Murphy said. “We’d like to move this forward and work with our neighbors and hopefully come up with a solution we can all live with. Probably nobody’s going to be entirely happy with the outcome, but we need to have a democratic process.”

South Portland is the latest U.S. city to wrestle with this issue, as has neighboring Portland. The council is responding to complaints from residents who say the spread of short-term rentals is undermining the city’s residential neighborhoods.

In a surprise move last month, the council scheduled the fourth workshop after it had directed city staff to draft a new ordinance that would ban non-owner-occupied short-term rentals in residential zones and provide a licensing scheme to regulate owner-occupied rentals. Existing zoning also allows homeowners to rent out rooms to as many as two people at a time as a “home occupation.”

Since complaints cropped up last summer, the council has been reviewing the problem and acting on the guidance of its attorney, Sally Daggett of Jensen, Baird, Gardner & Henry in Portland. Rose is so unhappy with her advice, he plans to ask the council to hire another law firm that would defend the city’s ordinances “in good faith.”

Daggett has determined that the city’s land-use ordinance wouldn’t withstand court scrutiny because it doesn’t clearly address short-term home rentals, which have existed for decades but have exploded worldwide in the last decade because of the internet.

PROPOSAL FOR ‘HOSTED STAYS’

In October, Daggett advised the council and city staffers, including Assistant City Manager Josh Reny and Code Enforcement Officer Matt LeConte, to develop new ordinances that would specifically regulate Airbnb-style rentals. She stands by her recommendation.

“I still think the approach I have suggested is the best way to provide certainty, safety and fairness to both proponents and opponents of the issue,” Daggett said. “So far, a majority of the council has not acted to proceed in a different direction, even when requested to do so, but they certainly can at any time.”

On Wednesday, the council will get its first look at an ordinance proposal that would license and regulate owner-occupied short-term rentals in residential zones and ban those that aren’t owner-occupied unless they’re in commercial zones, City Manager Scott Morelli said.

The ordinance would allow “hosted stays,” where a homeowner hosts a guest in his or her primary residence for less than 30 days, and seasonal or temporary rentals of a homeowner’s primary residence for less than 30 days while the owner is away.

Under the proposal, seasonal rentals could have only one party of guests per week and be rented no more than 90 nights per year. No short-term rentals would be allowed in buildings with three or more dwelling units or to have business signs or host gatherings that exceed parking limits.

Morelli understands that Rose and others believe the “inn” definition empowers the city to shut down short-term rentals that aren’t owner-occupied.

“The people charged with enforcing the ordinance and protecting the city against legal action do not have the same level of confidence in that language,” Morelli said.

If the council dropped the licensing proposal and directed city staff to shut down short-term rentals that appear to be operating as inns, the code enforcement officer would take action, Morelli said.

“Our legal counsel feels (the licensing proposal) is the better approach and is less susceptible to a successful legal challenge,” Morelli said. “We are fully committed to implementing and enforcing whatever restrictions the elected officials of this city wish to put in place. South Portland is not shy to enforce its codes and hold violators accountable.”

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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