SOUTH PORTLAND — Property owners who appeared to be ignoring new short-term rental regulations that went into effect Jan. 1 have responded to a recent threat of legal action, city officials said.

South Portland is among many communities worldwide, from Amsterdam and Los Angeles to neighboring Portland and Cape Elizabeth, that continue to wrestle with the popular practice of renting out residential properties on websites such as Airbnb and HomeAway.

In late July, City Attorney Sally Daggett sent a third warning letter to 13 property owners who hadn’t responded to two previous letters from the city clerk and continued to advertise short-term rentals in violation of the new ordinances.

If they didn’t remove their listings and stop renting their properties on a short-term basis, or otherwise come into compliance with the voter-approved rules, Daggett wrote, the city would move to impose hefty daily fines and pursue possible enforcement litigation.

All 13 responded by the Aug. 7 deadline, said City Clerk Emily Scully. Eleven have removed their listings or registered with the city, and two have begun the process of coming into compliance.

“The ordinance is working,” said Mayor Claude Morgan. “That’s always been the goal – to enforce the ordinance and get people into compliance – not to play whack-a-mole with short-term rentals.”

Morgan said the city has no plan to pursue legal action against short-term rental operators at this time, but that possibility is never going to be off the table.

“If they’re not eligible to operate a short-term rental, they’re not eligible,” Morgan said. “But we’re very pleased to see folks responded to the last round of letters and it looks unlikely that we’ll need to litigate anything this year.”

Scully said it turned out that most of the previously unregistered properties weren’t available for rent on a short-term basis, either because the owner had begun renting the property for 30 days or more, or because the owner simply hadn’t removed a defunct listing.

“Sometimes the reason for this is the property owner is not the one managing the listing,” Scully said in an email. “They have a manager or broker that is handling the listing for them, or the listing is on some sort of auto-renewal service where it needs to be deactivated in order to come into compliance.”

A few property owners said they were unaware of the ordinance or were out of the country and had not received prior notices, Scully said. City staff members are working with property owners who want to operate short-term rentals to bring them into compliance, she said.

There are now 94 short-term rentals in South Portland that are being advertised online and have been active in the last 12 months, down from a peak of 265 rentals in December 2018, according to HostCompliance, the city’s web consultant.

Since January, the city has  registered 53 rentals, most of them hosted home stays, Scully said. Ten are pending registrations that are awaiting inspection or re-inspection by the fire department.

“Overall, we have found property owners to be wanting to come into compliance with the city’s ordinances and cooperative,” Scully said.

In November, city residents voted 6,375 to 5,378 in favor of the zoning and licensing ordinances that the City Council approved in July 2018. The referendum followed a yearlong struggle to halt the proliferation of unhosted or whole-house short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods. Supporters said the rules would stop homes from being converted into mini-hotels, while opponents said they infringed on property rights.

The regulations – a relaxed version of ordinances the council passed in February 2018 – ban unhosted short-term rentals of less than 30 days in residential zones. Hosted short-term rentals – where the owner lives on the premises – are allowed in residential areas under certain conditions.

Under the new rules, all short-term rentals must be inspected, insured and licensed by the city. Licenses cost $200 for hosted rentals and $400 for unhosted rentals, plus a $100 fire safety inspection fee and a $20 processing fee. Fines for violations range from $500 to $1,500 per day, which would be recovered by the city filing a lawsuit.

Lawmakers around the world have taken steps to rein in short-term rentals, most recently in New York City; Charleston, South Carolina; New Orleans; San Francisco; Los Angeles; Amsterdam; Paris; Mallorca, Spain; Reykjavik, Iceland; and the entire country of Japan.

In neighboring Portland, the City Council recently tightened short-term rental rules passed in 2017. The code enforcement office is targeting 40 unregistered properties that are non-owner-occupied, whole-home rentals. Unhosted rentals in Portland are capped at 400 citywide, so the noncompliant must wait for other operators to give up their licenses in order to operate legally.

“Our attorney is working with operators who aren’t in compliance,” said Jessica Hanscombe, Portland’s licensing manager. “If they have pending reservations, we want them to wind down, not take anymore reservations and stop operating until they are in compliance.”

In Cape Elizabeth, recent residents’ complaints prompted the Town Council to schedule a review of short-term rental standards on Wednesday. Under the ordinance, approved in 2012, properties leased as short-term rentals for more than two weeks per year must have an annual town permit and be inspected to ensure they meet building safety codes and parking requirements.

The town’s comprehensive plan, updated this summer, recommends that the town “streamline administrative tracking of short-term rental activity by (also) requiring a permit” for any property leased for two weeks per year year or less.

Residents raised concerns about the proliferation of short-term rentals in residential areas during public hearings on the updated comp plan. Town officials also have received 13 complaints about short-term rentals so far this year, said Town Manager Matt Sturgis.

“Most were about noise and rapid turnover of guests,” Sturgis said. “The ordinance has been pretty functional, but there’s been significant growth in the popularity of short-term rentals since 2012.”

Whether Cape Elizabeth will tighten its short-term rental standards remains to be seen. In South Portland, residents in the Willard Beach area – ground zero for the short-term rental controversy in that community – have seen improvement since voters approved some of the strictest rules pertaining to home rentals.

Patricia Morrison lives next door to an unhosted short-term rental on Preble Street that’s owned by Robert and Marilys Scheindel, former Cape Elizabeth residents who say they now live on Henry Street in one of several properties they own in South Portland.

Morrison was a vocal supporter of imposing rules on short-term rentals after experiencing large and loud parties that lasted late into the night during the 2017 rental season.

“It’s much better,” Morrison said Friday. “We’re getting back some of the neighborhood feeling that we had lost.”

Robert Scheindel said he was glad to hear Morrison is happy with the current situation. They’re leasing their unhosted rentals for 30-day periods, he said, when they take reservations from one set of guests at a time.

Morgan, the city’s mayor, said HostCompliance has confirmed that it appears the Scheindels are renting their properties for 30-day stretches.

Scheindel said the 30-day approach has been financially viable so far. Come fall, when demand slows, they might seek winter tenants to live in the house until next spring.

“We’re complying with the ordinance,” Scheindel said Friday, taking a break from mowing the lawn at 180 Preble St. “We’re not in the neighborhood to create problems.”

Morrison disputes Scheindel’s assertion that they’ve had only one set of guests each month this summer. She said she saw some weekly turnover through July and August.

“Still, it’s been tolerable,” Morrison said. “There has been improvement.”

To report violations of the city’s short-term rental rules, call the 24-hour hotline at 835-3200.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.