SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council will hold a fourth workshop on hotly contested short-term rentals next month, delaying plans to bring an ordinance regulating Airbnb-style operations to a council vote in January.

It’s unclear what impact the delay might have on the council’s previously stated unanimous opposition to short-term rentals of entire single-family houses that aren’t occupied by their owners.

Five of seven councilors agreed Wednesday that the rental issue warrants further discussion, after the council two weeks ago asked city staff members to draft proposed ordinance changes for a first reading and vote in January.

One councilor, who represents waterfront neighborhoods most affected by short-term rentals, vehemently opposes the delay and questions the motives of other councilors who approved it.

Mayor Linda Cohen said a majority of councilors indicated during Wednesday’s workshop planning session that they want to take more time with the issue and expect to see proposed ordinance language at a Jan. 24 workshop.

Cohen said councilors voiced a variety of reasons for wanting to “slow down” the process. Two councilors are newly elected. Some want the council to set up a committee of stakeholders to work on the regulations.

“Some councilors feel it’s moving too fast,” Cohen said Thursday. “I just want to do it right.”

Councilors were unanimous two weeks ago in saying they wanted to prohibit short-term rentals of homes that aren’t owner-occupied in residential neighborhoods, despite pleas from short-term rental operators who said such a ban would damage them financially.

At the same time, councilors said they would allow owner-occupied short-term rentals in residential and other districts under an evolving set of proposed regulations that city staff members said would be difficult to enforce under traditional mechanisms.

CONSTITUENTS FEEL ‘BETRAYED’

Councilor Claude Morgan, who opposed holding a fourth workshop along with Councilor Susan Henderson, said he was shocked and disappointed to see his colleagues back down Wednesday. The way he sees it, they promised to take action in January to ban short-term rentals that aren’t owner-occupied and regulate owner-occupied operations.

“That was the explicit promise coming out of the council chamber two weeks ago,” Morgan said Thursday. “Now I couldn’t tell you where the council is going on this. I don’t know if I can take a councilor at his word about anything related to this issue.”

Morgan said many of his constituents in the Ferry Village and Willard Beach neighborhoods have contacted him since the fourth workshop was scheduled. Many are worried, he said, and some feel “betrayed” by the council’s vacillation.

South Portland is the latest U.S. city to wrestle with this issue, as has neighboring Portland. The council responded to complaints from residents who say the spread of short-term rentals, like those advertised on Airbnb.com and similar websites, is tearing at the fabric of the city’s residential neighborhoods.

Short-term rentals involve rooms or homes that are leased for a few days to a few weeks at a time. Such rentals aren’t listed as permitted uses in South Portland’s residential zoning districts, but like many commercial uses, they aren’t explicitly prohibited.

‘THIS IS A CITYWIDE ISSUE’

Cohen said scheduling a fourth workshop doesn’t mean councilors have changed their minds about short-term rentals. However, there are complex regulations to be considered, she said, including various ways to limit or control their growth in neighborhoods throughout the city.

“This is a citywide issue,” Cohen said. “I don’t want to see the disintegration of neighborhoods.”

There are 282 short-term rentals in the city listed on various home-sharing websites, according to Host Compliance, a third-party web service. About 70 percent are single-family homes that are not owner-occupied and are considered whole-house rentals.

Councilors said last week that they would support allowing owner-occupied short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods, in part because having an owner on-site probably would alleviate complaints about rowdy guests keeping neighbors up all night.

Councilors also noted that whole-house short-term rentals are especially concerning because they remove single-family homes from a real estate market in which city officials are struggling to create much-needed affordable housing.

And with short-term rentals going for an average of $175 per night, not counting security deposits and cleaning fees, they’ve also helped to drive up home prices in the city’s eastern neighborhoods and put pressure on long-term rental prices.

Short-term rental operators recently formed an association that submitted a proposal to the council that would, in part, put the association in charge of regulating its members. Cohen said she appreciated the offer but wouldn’t support short-term rental owners monitoring themselves.

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KelleyBouchard

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