All over the state, in the midst of a pandemic, a number of cities and towns are confronting what would seem to be a major issue for their constituents: Short-term rental regulations.

Yes, you read that right. Over the past year or so, local elected officials have decided that people renting out properties, rooms or apartments on websites like Airbnb are somehow an imminent threat to the cohesion of their communities that immediately demands their attention, no matter what else might be going on in the state right now.

It’s even percolated up to the state level, where a number of bills are pending that would affect short-term rentals. Some of them are simple, like imposing fees or registration requirements, while others are more draconian, but they – like most of the proposed local regulations – have one thing in common: They’re completely unnecessary.

For the most part, short-term rentals are a boon to Maine’s economy, rather than being any sort of threat whatsoever. They bring a lot of visitors in to the state, and given that tourism is the biggest driver of our economic engine, that should count for a lot. It’s a good reason why government in the state at all levels should, generally, treat short-term rentals with kid gloves, relatively speaking: They’re a huge boon to Maine’s largest industry. We shouldn’t be making things harder for short-term rentals any more than we should be for hotels, restaurants or lobstermen – they’re a major part of the backbone of our economy. By and large they’re small-business operators, who, politicians in both parties love to say, they support come election season.

Yet, judging by the way elected officials all across the state are acting, they view short-term rental properties as some sort of hostile interloper, undermining our small-town way of life and hurting the state. It’s worth taking a moment to unpack those hostile feelings to understand them, so we can understand why short-term rentals are being targeted like they’re a huge national chain trying to build a big box store in the middle of protected wetlands.

One of the most common complaints raised by opponents to short-term rentals is that doing so in the middle of a residential neighborhood fundamentally changes the nature of the neighborhood itself. While that point has some legitimacy, especially if a short-term rental property is being used for major social gatherings all the time, that issue can largely be covered by existing ordinances.

Noise ordinances, for instance, apply just as much to short-term rental properties as they do to anyone else. So, if you live right next door to such a property and the guests are having a big party, you can do exactly what you would do if it weren’t a short-term rental: Call the cops on them. In Maine, the odds are that if you’re in a more densely-packed neighborhood where your neighbor’s parties might bother you, you probably also have a responsive local police department that will readily respond to such complaints.

Similarly, if you have a neighbor down the street whose short-term rental property seems to be primarily being used as an events space, that might be considered a business rather than a residential property and fall under zoning violations. Many of the problems surrounding short-term rentals fall under existing laws; we don’t actually need new laws to control them. It’s easy to go to your city council and try to get short-term rentals banned, but the more reasonable solution is to try to get existing laws enforced. They’re there for a reason, and if you don’t use them, that’s your fault. All too often, politicians are eager to write new laws when the problem could be solved just by enforcing existing ones.

If the local government can’t address the problem through existing regulations, they probably won’t be able to address it through new laws, either. Government doesn’t magically become more competent by passing new laws; instead, that usually ends up being an excuse for their continuing incompetence. Maine has a long history of responsible property owners engaging in short-term rentals, established long before the internet even existed. Rather than turning on people looking for additional income, we should find a reasonable way to deal with irresponsible property owners and make the system work better for everyone.

That’s the reasonable, responsible approach, and the one Mainers of all stripes all over the state deserve.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: jimfossel


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