CAPE ELIZABETH — Like many people who live near unruly short-term rentals, Tim Hebda has witnessed drunken and disrespectful guests urinating on shrubbery, partying at all hours and leaving garbage behind for year-round residents to pick up.

Then there’s the occasional nighttime knock on his door when guests can’t get into the rental they planned to call home for the next few days. They can’t find the key. They fear they’ve been scammed. Hebda does what he can to help.

“You end up being a concierge for the unstaffed hotel across the street,” said Hebda, who lives on Richmond Terrace, near Crescent Beach. “Most of the people operating short-term rentals in Cape Elizabeth live out of town or out of state, and the rules are tilted in favor of people who don’t live here.”

Cape Elizabeth short-term rentals

In a residential neighborhood of Cape Elizabeth, just steps from Crescent Beach and Seal Cove, this single-family home on Richmond Terrace is owned by a Connecticut resident and has been operated as a short-term rental, neighbors and town officials say. Kelley Bouchard/Staff Writer

On Tuesday, the Planning Board will hold a public hearing on a plan to strengthen those rules and tighten loopholes that have allowed short-term rentals to spread largely unchecked in recent years, residents and town officials say.

Developed over the last year and a half, the proposed ordinance changes were drafted to protect the quality of life in residential neighborhoods and prevent homes from becoming hotels. The Zoom meeting starts at 7 p.m.

Cape Elizabeth is one of several communities in Maine, and many across the nation, that have wrestled with the explosion of short-term rentals advertised on websites such as Airbnb, HomeAway and Vrbo. Portland has been trying to rein them in for several years, including a measure on the Nov. 3 ballot that would have banned non-owner-occupied or unhosted short-term rentals. It failed by 222 votes.

The South Portland City Council passed short-term rental regulations in 2018 that banned unhosted stays in residential zones and were subsequently upheld in a citywide referendum. More recently, the Kittery Town Council approved short-term rental regulations in July, and town officials in Bar Harbor, Kennebunk and Kennebunkport have been chewing over similar proposals.

Cape Elizabeth was one of the first communities to try to control short-term rentals when the Town Council passed regulations in 2012, said Town Council Chairman Jamie Garvin, who helped to write the new regulations.

“(Short-term rentals) have grown tremendously in popularity since then, both for travelers and operators,” Garvin said. “We saw a need to adapt and modify our ordinance to meet market conditions.”

Garvin acknowledged that some short-term rentals are operated responsibly, without disturbing their neighbors.

“But like every problem, the bad apples are spoiling it for the rest,” Garvin said.

Last year, as many as 160 Cape Elizabeth properties were advertised as short-term rentals on homestay websites, but only 35 were registered with the town, said Town Planner Maureen O’Meara. About 50 short-term rentals are registered now, she said, though a true count remains elusive.

There may be fewer short-term rentals overall this year, largely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, O’Meara said. But problems have persisted, with some scofflaws renting during the statewide lodging shutdown last spring, and some continue to violate the town’s existing short-term rental rules, residents and town officials say.

Under the proposed changes, all short-term rental operators would have to get a permit from the town. The current ordinance requires a permit only if a property is rented for more than 14 days per year – a standard that has proven impossible for the town to monitor and easy for property owners to dismiss.

“Anybody who’s renting for less than 30 days has to get a permit,” O’Meara said.

Also under the proposed ordinance, a majority of short-term rentals in residential zones would be limited to primary residences, where the owners claim homestead exemptions for property tax purposes. Homeowners could offer either hosted or unhosted stays, but not both during the same year.

Hosted stays would be allowed in primary residences throughout the year, as long as homeowners limited turnover to one rental per week and followed all other requirements. Homeowners could offer unhosted stays, when they would be absent from the property, for up to 42 days per calendar year.

“If it’s your primary residence, at least you’ve got skin in the game,” Garvin said. “At some point, you’ve got to face your neighbors.”

Residential property owners with at least 7-acre lots would be allowed to offer hosted or unhosted stays for up to 182 days per year whether or not it’s their primary residence. Short-term rentals would be allowed in non-primary residences for up to 105 days per year if the owner’s primary residence is on the same lot, an adjacent lot or a lot directly across the street.

The Planning Board is poised to recommend the ordinance changes to the Town Council as an improvement over the current regulations, but with reservations and suggested revisions concerning unhosted stays.

“The Planning Board consensus is that (short-term rentals) are a commercial use that is incompatible with the peaceful quiet enjoyment of residential neighborhood properties,” according to a draft memo to the council. “Most short-term rental guests are on vacation and not visiting Cape Elizabeth to be part of the community. (The board) recommends that unhosted (short-term rentals) not be permitted in the residential zoning districts.”

The council will hold another public hearing in the weeks ahead and have the final say on the proposed changes. The council has extended a moratorium on new short-term rentals through next spring, when the tougher ordinance is expected to be in place.

Operators would have to meet certain occupancy, safety, parking and “good neighbor conduct” requirements. The code enforcement officer would field complaints and impose various fines and penalties for infractions of the new ordinance, such as “disruptive outdoor behavior,” which includes smoking, swearing, lewd gestures or conduct, late-hour noise, pet control, substance use and speeding.

The proposed changes would likely make life better in Tim Hebda’s neighborhood, where five of 11 homes on Richmond Terrace were short-term rentals in 2019. He and his wife bought their house 14 years ago, when the young couple moved back to Maine and chose the modest gravel road near Crescent Beach State Park as the place to raise a family. But Hebda doesn’t see the ordinance update as a cure-all.

“In our neighborhood, it would alleviate a lot of stress,” Hebda said. “It’s a step in the right direction. But there will still be too many loopholes and the responsibility of monitoring compliance will still fall to the residents.”

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