Beachgoers walk along York Beach on a hazy day Tuesday. York voters will decide on a proposed ordinance that would require owners of short-term rentals to get a license from the town and pass safety inspections before renting out their properties. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

No one in York questions the town’s longstanding tradition of welcoming summer visitors to stay in rented seaside homes. But whether those properties should be licensed and inspected is being debated as residents prepare to vote Saturday on new regulations.

The town is considering an ordinance that would regulate short-term rentals for the first time. Many other beachside destinations in Maine already have rules governing these properties, which grew in popularity over the past decade with easy-to-use online platforms like Airbnb and VRBO.

Opponents say York’s proposal would amount to government overreach in a town that has had very few documented problems. But supporters say the short-term rental properties have become increasingly disruptive to residential neighborhoods and should be licensed like any other business.

“We are a beach community, we are a tourist community, and we thrive on that. We just need a few rules in place so everyone can benefit,” said Lee-Anne Leverone, of York Beach, who supports the proposed rules and says people staying at short-term rentals have been unruly.

Joe Colwell, who owns two rental properties, said he and others opposed to the proposed regulations feel the town rushed the process and they question the need for the ordinance. Most of the rental properties are owned by people who live in York and rent out their homes in the summer to help cover expenses, he said.

“We’ve had rentals for a hundred-plus years in York,” he said. “The areas where you see the rentals are areas where you’ve traditionally seen rentals.”

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The town estimates that there are about 1,000 short-term rentals in York. Those currently available to rent through Airbnb range from a tiny cabin with three beds to a 15-bed coastal compound with eight bedrooms, secret speakeasy room, tennis court and private beach. Some listings are for traditional seasonal beach cottages, while others are single-family homes in neighborhoods farther from the beach. They range in price from $240 to $1,400 per night.

Yes and No signs dot the roadside in York where voters on Saturday will decide on a proposed ordinance that would require owners of short-term rentals to get a license from the town and pass safety inspections before renting out their properties. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Other Maine vacation hotspots like Kennebunkport and Bar Harbor cap the number of short-term rental licenses. Portland requires rentals to be registered, caps the overall number and restricts how many units can be in each building. And last fall, an Old Orchard Beach town councilor proposed putting a moratorium on rental licenses so the town could consider new rules but withdrew the plan after it ignited a fierce debate.

York’s proposed ordinance would not implement a cap on licenses, but it would require rental property owners to obtain a permit from the town and undergo an inspection by the fire and codes departments every three years. The potential cost of the permit has not yet been determined.

Owners also would have to identify an emergency contact who is available to respond within 60 minutes if issues arise, have insurance for the property and comply with fire safety requirements. Owners also would be required to have off-street parking and limit guests to two per bedroom, plus two additional people (not including children under 16). Owners and guests would be on the hook for following the town’s noise ordinance. Violations could result in the owner losing their permit.

If approved, the rules go into effect at the end of the year with inspections phased in over the next three years by splitting registered properties into three groups using a lottery.

The proposal is “intended to ensure that residential neighborhoods are not unduly impacted by the operation of short-term residential rentals, to ensure the health, safety and well-being of York’s residents and visitors, and to evaluate impacts on housing within town,” according to a voter guide created by town officials.

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SHIFTING ENERGY AT RENTALS

York first considered regulating short-term rentals in 2017 after some York Beach residents grew concerned about the impact the units were having on the area, but the select board ultimately didn’t move forward with it. Five years later, voters approved a comprehensive plan that calls on the community to better track rentals and create standards that allow them to operate.

So late last year, the select board asked town planners to develop an ordinance. The board held three public hearings before it voted to send the ordinance to voters.

Leverone said Airbnb and VRBO have “shifted the energy” around rentals. For many years, people had rented their houses each year to the same families. Those owners had generational ties to the community and oversaw their properties, she said.

But some of those renting out their homes on these new sites say they’re following the same traditions.

Colwell said he rents his properties through VRBO and has many people who come back every summer. One family has been renting the same house for two weeks every summer since the mid-1970s, long before he owned the property, he said.

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“There are a lot of repeat customers and a number of them have connections with York,” he said.

The vast majority of short-term rentals in York still have “mom and pop” owners – people who rent out a house that has been in their family for generations, Colwell said, noting that about 90% of them own one rental property.

“Some of the yes folks say there’s big corporations coming in and buying up properties,” he said. “Most of these are owned by one owner.”

Kirk Minnick, of York, supports a proposed ordinance that would require owners of short-term rentals to get a license from the town and pass safety inspections before renting out their properties. Minnick is worried about the impact of short-term rentals on neighborhoods and thinks the proposed requirements are reasonable. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Leverone views short-term rentals as unregulated hotels. There are three buildings that sleep between 18 and 22 people on her street, plus two of similar size right around the corner.

Kirk Minnick, who lives near Long Sands Beach, said he would have liked to have had stronger regulations, but the proposal seems like a reasonable way to make sure guests are safe and help the town get a better understanding of how rental properties are operating in town. He said two houses in his neighborhood have recently converted to short-term rentals and he worries that more will follow the same path.

“It’s really become a business for people,” he said. 

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In York Harbor, there is now a party atmosphere at rental properties, according to some residents who support the ordinance. They say they are concerned the conversion of homes to short-term rentals is having a negative impact in a tight housing market.

“I’ve had people vomiting in my yard, peeing in my yard,” Leverone said. “They’re trespassing trying to get to the beach. They’re really emboldened.”

Jim Smith, who moved to York Harbor in 1972, said he’s seen a dramatic change in his neighborhood and now feels like he’s living in an investor’s business plan. Five single-family homes have been converted to short-term rentals in his neighborhood, he said.

“The loss of neighbors and the neighborhood have been the hardest to digest,” he said. 

RENTAL OWNERS PUSH BACK

Colwell has joined other owners and residents to form the Vote No on 64 group, which has put signs up around town and started a website outlining their opposition. They say the regulations are the most onerous in Maine and that the process was rushed, not supported by data and will have a negative impact on the community.

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“If you look at the past 100 years, there hasn’t been a major safety issue in York. It speaks to the owners ensuring there are good safety protocols,” said Colwell, who grew up in York and now lives in Massachusetts.

Beachgoers walk along York Beach on Tuesday as the town prepares to decide on a proposed ordinance that would require owners of short-term rentals to get a license from the town. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Don Rivers owns a real estate firm and has been renting out his properties and others for more than 40 years. He opposes the proposed rules, saying that most owners are already focused on safety and don’t need more rules and inspections.

“I don’t believe this ordinance is the solution for these people who are irritated with the tourists,” he said.

With an old housing stock – some rentals were built at the turn of the last century – many owners could have to make costly repairs, Colwell said.

Smith, from York Harbor, said the proposed ordinance is “pretty mild” compared to other communities. He likes that it sets up a formal complaint process for citizens who may feel uncomfortable calling police to report issues. He believes this will also protect rental owners because complaints will be verified.

But rental owners believe the town should use existing ordinances for noise, traffic and trash to address concerns instead of using a new system to weaponize neighbors versus neighbors, Colwell said. Owners say the proposed complaint process is poorly defined, lacks due process and sets excessive penalties.

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