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February 21, 2019

Bill to prevent municipalities from banning short-term rentals sparks strong debate

Photo / Airbnb
Photo / Airbnb
The Airbnb website lists this South Portland home with a headline "Large home close to everything" and describes it as "ideal for providing an excellent accommodation for a family or groups that want to live in comfort for their stay in the Portland area. There are 4 bedrooms and 2.5 baths, and the home is outfitted with every convenience necessary." A proposed bill that would block municipalities from prohibiting short-term rentals such as Airbnb sparked opposition from the mayors of South Portland and Portland, who said it would take away municipalities' 'home rule' authority.

The mayors of Portland and South Portland voiced their opposition Wednesday to a proposed bill that would block municipalities from prohibiting short-term rentals such as Airbnb.

But its sponsor defended the measure, saying Airbnb and other short-term rentals "are giving tourists a new way to look for a place to stay while visiting our great state."

"Instead of fighting these changes we must embrace them," Rep. Scott Strom, R-Pittsfield, said in written testimony supporting the bill.

Among those speaking in opposition to Strom's bill were South Portland Mayor Claude Morgan, who attended the hearing in Augusta to deliver in person testimony he signed with Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling.

LD 209, "An Act to Prohibit Municipalities from Prohibiting Short-term Rentals,," is cosponsored by Sen. Scott W. Cyrway, R-Kennebec, and Reps. Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester; Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor; Justin Fecteau, R-Augusta and Sheldon Mark Hannington, R-Lincoln.

Portland and South Portland advance 'home rule'

In their joint testimony before the Committee on State and Local Government, the two mayors, who represent more than 100,000 residents, said that they chair local governing bodies that carefully and thoughtfully exercised home rule authority to recently regulate short-term rentals.

"Both communities held dozens of public hearings over a period of more than one year to arrive at their respective decisions to regulate," they said in written testimony shared with Mainebiz. "Both are proud to represent vibrant and engaged communities that are willing to research, debate, and ultimately compromise to integrate this industry within each city's existing zoning ordinances."

Morgan sidestepped discussion of the pros and cons of the short-term rental industry, choosing instead to emphasize the importance of home rule in determining how best to regulate such rentals within each municipality's borders.

"Just as our zoning ordinances are different, so too are the choices and methods we arrived at to regulate short term rentals in our respective communities," Morgan said. "One size does not fit all. Both communities engaged in thoughtful dialogue to arrive at our decision to regulate. South Portland even held a citywide referendum. Voters overwhelmingly upheld the regulations drafted by their elected local officials. Both cities exercised home rule authority responsibly, thoughtfully, and — most importantly — we exercised this time-honored doctrine lawfully."

The bill defines "short-term rental" as "a residential dwelling unit that is rented wholly or partially to no more than four transient guests for a period of less than 30 days."

It stipulates that "except for narrowly tailored regulation to protect the public health and safety, a municipality may not prohibit or restrict the use of a short-term rental."

Strimling said that the short-term rental industry poses "unique and complex pressures on neighborhoods and communities."

"Removing a community's ability to regulate the impact of an industry — to exercise our incipient rights to create a set of rules to augment the benefits while diminishing the liabilities — also removes from us access to the law courts," he said in a joint news release. "So, in one stroke, this bill could eliminate local decision-making as well as any access to legal remedy, scholarly consideration, and judicial wisdom. This is an industry that cries out for that review. Witness the many municipalities worldwide that are already regulating short-term rentals because, unchecked, they erode the role of community-based vision."

Testimony: Pro

Support for the bill was voiced by Adam Crepeau, policy analyst for The Maine Heritage Policy Center, who said in his written testimony: "Municipal bans on short-term rentals chip away at the private property rights of individuals. It is our prerogative that government should not be dictating what individuals can or cannot do with their homes or property as long as public health and safety are not a factor.

"Enacting prohibitions on short-term rentals and regulating them outside of the scope of health and safety is a slippery slope that results in the diminishment of private property rights."

Strom, the bill's sponsor, noted in his testimony that approximately 425,000 visitors used the Airbnb home-sharing service in 2018 — a 50% increase from 2017 — earning its hosts in Maine $66 million. He added that this winter, hosts in Maine's ski areas are expected to earn roughly $5.3 million in supplemental income from the home-sharing service.

"These hosts that l have mentioned are residents of Maine, they are property owners who are investing in their communities," Strom wrote. "They are purchasing and renovating properties to use as short-term rentals. In some cases, these people are doing this as a way to make a living and others do it as a means of having a supplemental income. No matter the reason, Maine residents and communities are bene ting. Maine is known as Vacation Land" and having these short-term rentals in our state is providing yet another way for people from outside of Maine to come visit our beautiful state."

Testimony: Con

Strimling and Morgan — who represent, respectively, the state's largest and fourth-largest economies — asked the committee to reject LD 209 and, in their words, "uphold home rule."

Garrett Corbin, in written testimony posted on the Legislature's website, told lawmakers on the committee that Maine Municipal Association strongly opposed the bill.

"If this section of law is enacted it will create a specialized right to this one short-term rental use that does not exist for comparable lodging operations," he said. "Moreover, this particular land use has raised serious questions over communities ability to manage their growth, particularly with respect to ensuring their residential neighborhoods do, in fact, remain residential.

Corbin added, "There is little doubt that the passage of LD 209 will force Maine's towns and cities, as well as the providers of short-term rentals, into court to nd out the answer to these and a myriad of other questions that will inevitably be raised by this vaguely drafted bill,"

Opposition was also voiced by Hospitality Maine, Cottage Connection of Maine, Vacation Rental Professionals of Maine and Maine Tourism Association, among others.

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