SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council voted 5-2 Tuesday night to let voters decide a hotly contested ordinance that regulates short-term residential rentals.

Tuesday’s vote followed more than two hours of public testimony and debate among City Council members, who had the option of repealing a short-term rental ordinance that they had enacted this summer.

Instead, the majority of the City Council said they were satisfied with the regulations they had adopted and that now it was time for South Portland’s citizens to decide whether they wanted to keep them. The referendum vote will take place Nov. 6.

“I’m ready for this to go to referendum and the public is as well,” Councilor Claude Morgan said. “I think the council has found the middle ground. We’re at the point now where philosophically we can go no further. Let the public decide.”

The modified short-term rental regulations, based on original rules passed by a 6-1 vote in February, retained at their core a ban on unhosted or non-owner-occupied short-term rentals in all residential neighborhoods.

“When push comes to shove we on the council made a decision that not everyone likes,” Councilor Sue Henderson added. “We’re not going to be able to please everyone. I think at this point we need to go to referendum.”

Tuesday’s council vote – Councilors Eben Rose and Adrian Dowling voted in opposition to the referendum – was preceded by a public hearing that drew about 40 people to City Hall. A majority of speakers said they supported a city-wide vote on the ordinance. However, some speakers said they felt a referendum would only serve to further divide the community.

City Council Chairman Linda Cohen said in an interview before the council meeting that if her colleagues were to put the question to referendum, South Portland would become the first Maine community to hold a referendum vote aimed at regulating the practice of renting out rooms or homes for a day, week or month at a time.

“The purposes of the ordinance are to balance the desire of property owners to rent their residential properties to short-term rental guests for compensation against the desire of residents to preserve the traditional peace and quiet or their residential neighborhoods,” the City Council stated in documents that were developed to support the restrictions.

However, South Portland city councilors voted 7-0 Aug. 21 to put the short-term rental rules, which were adopted in July, on hold after residents submitted a petition to overturn the city’s latest restriction on room and home rentals advertised on websites such as Airbnb and Home Away.

Both petition drives were led by Michael Frabotta, a Preble Street resident who moved to South Portland last year. Frabotta has spoken against the regulations and the council’s handling of the issue at several public meetings.

In March, Frabotta’s first petition drive turned confrontational when supporters of the regulations said petitioners were giving false information as they gathered signatures. So they “shadowed” petitioners, offering their take on the ordinances before voters signed. Police issued a cease harassment notice to one person at Frabotta’s request.

As the number of unlicensed short-term rentals has surged in communities around the country, cities and states have tried to regulate the practice, both to protect residential neighborhoods and to limit the loss of year-round affordable housing that is being converted to more lucrative rentals serving tourists.

Portland is now revisiting its restrictions on short-term rentals after a new registration requirement revealed more than 700 rental units around the city, surprising officials and intensifying concerns about the loss of year-round housing for residents.

South Portland adopted some of southern Maine’s most restrictive rules last year, prohibiting people renting out non-owner-occupied or unhosted rooms or apartments in residential zones. Unlike in Portland and other communities, South Portland’s rules would effectively prevent the practice of buying homes or apartment buildings for the purpose of converting the properties into short-term rental properties.

The council revised the rule after an earlier petition drive, but retained the strict limits on rentals in the city’s residential neighborhoods.

Many residents who spoke at Tuesday’s hearing said that the character of their neighborhoods is being dramatically changed by short-term rentals that cater to the needs of tourists and other transients who live in Maine for a short time. Those critics say that they want neighbors, not strangers living in their neighborhoods.

“I fear that I will be surrounded by short-term rentals,” said Diana Joyner, who said she moved to South Portland a short time ago. Joyner said she would support sending the question to a city-wide referendum.

Dan Romano warned that hotel chains will “follow the money” and take over South Portland neighborhoods by establishing short-term rentals.

“I think it’s an incredibly fearful prospect to be overtaken by wealthy corporations,” Romano said.

South Portland is among dozens of cities across the country that have wrestled with the growing popularity of short-term rentals, which typically range from a few days to a few weeks.

As of last November, there were 282 short-term rentals in South Portland listed on multiple websites, and 75 percent of them were for entire homes, according to the city’s online consultant.

In the latest regulations, the council made a number of concessions related to hosted stays, such as allowing two adult guests per bedroom, with a maximum of six guests per house. The original ordinance capped the total number of guests at two adults.

The council also dropped an initial ban on homeowners renting out their houses while on vacation. Owners of detached single-family homes may rent their houses for at least seven days and as many as 14 days per year when they are away.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]

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