Two women take a walk through a quiet downtown Freeport in April, shortly after most businesses closed due to the coronavirus. FILE

Freeport is trying to form rules regulating short-term rental services, such as Airbnb and VRBO, an issue that has divided some in town.

A proposed ordinance would require short-term rental registration, limit the total amount of short-term rentals in town to 300 and prohibit gatherings of more than 16 people at short-term rental locations.

The ordinance would also address issues around safety, noise, trash and parking, among other things, and require that an emergency contact person be available within 60 minutes, around the clock to respond to complaints.

According to AirDNA, a website that provides vacation rental data, Freeport currently has 63 active rentals — a number that increases with the summer months. 75% of the active rentals are listed on Airbnb and 9% are listed on VRBO.

Public support ranges, with some in favor of the ordinance and some opposed.

Mandy MacPherson, who has rented through Airbnb in Freeport for around five years, said she doesn’t quite see what problem the ordinance is trying to address.

“It sounds like the 300 cap isn’t even needed, so once again you’re solving a problem that isn’t there,” MacPherson said. “It doesn’t seem like [even] if you’re doing a long-term rental, [you should] have a two-bedroom house that has 16 people in it.”

“I feel like it’s not solving the problems that may exist or it’s intending to solve,” MacPherson added.

Leanne Nichols, a real-estate agent, Freeport resident and member of the Freeport Economic Development Committee also opposed to the proposed ordinance.

“In the face of other things that to me feel more important and more pressing, it just feels like kind of a distraction, frankly,” Nichols said.

Freeport resident Jack Reilly, who neighbors an Airbnb rental, is in favor of the ordinance.

“For two years I’ve had to put up with a significant impact on our quality of life,” Reilly said, noting consistent and unmanaged parties, garbage, recreational fires and parking.

“We have basically been transformed from a nice peaceful community into a community of transients,” said Joyce Veilleux, who helped draft the ordinance and also neighbors short-term rentals. “There is also the impact it has on town and the availability of long-term rental.”

The owner and operator of a local bed and breakfast, Kelleigh Dulany said short-term rentals have had an estimated 20%-30% impact on her business’s net income.

Dulany said she believes it is important that the town has a handle on short-term rental markets, because if gone unchecked, Freeport could have problems balancing short-term visitors with attracting long-term residents and workers.

The initial proposal prohibited short-term rentals from having more than one booking in a week but that was removed along with other adjustments after the first public hearing in March.

“I was totally against the previous version of this, but I think they have made some good changes,” said James Hendricks who has been a landlord in Freeport for 20 years and rents out one Airbnb location. “I’d rather not be regulated, but if we have to be regulated this isn’t a bad ordinance — it’s pretty fair in my mind.”

Hendricks said he is nervous about the 24-hour emergency contact requirement and enforcement. “How can they really establish that you’re going to be able to respond in 60 minutes, 24 hours a day?” Hendricks said.

While some sources referenced issues in the neighborhood of Flying Point, according to Town Manager Peter Joseph, Freeport has received an estimated 30 complaints from various houses and neighborhoods.

Town officials have scheduled the next public hearing for April 27, where councilors will also vote on the ordinance. Joseph said the proposed registration fee for short-term rental registration is a tentative $100 annually and that this ordinance is an outgrowth of a conversation that began in 2019.

The ordinance defines short term rental as fewer than 28 consecutive days and does not include motels, hotels and bed and breakfast inns.

Other popular Maine tourist destinations — such as Kennebunkport, Bar Harbor, Portland, Cape Elizabeth, South Portland and Rockland — are also adopting or are in the process of adopting similar regulations, Town Councilor Dan Piltch said.

“The spirit of it is that we’re just trying to balance the needs and the opinions of various groups in towns,” Piltch said. “My sense is that, for the most part, people are open to sensible and reasonable regulations and we just have to thread that needle.”

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