SOUTH PORTLAND — For activists on both sides of the short-term rental debate that has consumed this city for a year, it all comes down to property rights.

Supporters of proposed short-term rental regulations on the Nov. 6 ballot say they want to preserve residential neighborhoods and stop houses from being turned into boutique hotels. Opponents say the regulations go too far, including a ban on unhosted or non-owner-occupied rentals that they say infringes on basic property rights.

The referendum puts South Portland on the front lines of a culture war being waged across the nation over home rentals promoted on popular websites such as Airbnb and HomeAway.

The City Council approved zoning and licensing ordinances for short-term rentals in July, then put the regulations on hold after a second successful referendum petition. The first referendum petition had caused the council to repeal and modify an initial set of regulations approved in February.

The relaxed rules would allow hosted short-term rentals – where the owner lives on the premises – in residential zones under certain conditions. Unhosted short-term rentals would be prohibited in residential areas.

“Primary among your rights in a residential neighborhood is the right not to be forced to live next door to a hotel and experience the hollowing out of your neighborhood as these businesses spread,” said Jeff Steinbrink, president of Neighbors for Neighborhoods, a group that supports the ordinances.

Steinbrink lives at the corner of Cottage Road, a main thoroughfare, and Victory Avenue, a short residential street about a half-mile from Willard Beach. He said four of the 16 houses on Victory Avenue were operated as whole-house short-term rentals last summer.

“You can’t open a barber shop in a residential zone. You can’t open a tattoo parlor,” Steinbrink said. “Why would it be OK to have a hotel next door with a revolving door for strangers?”

Opponents of the regulations say the fear of unhosted short-term rentals is unfounded, that existing ordinances should be used to control noisy or otherwise out-of-control rentals, and that the requirement to be owner-occupied would make it impossible for most of them to operate.

“(The regulations would) basically eliminate short-term rentals,” said John Murphy, a leader of South Portland Citizens for Property Rights, a group that opposes the ordinances. He operates a short-term rental on Willard Street that overlooks Willard Beach and Casco Bay beyond.

“Most of the renters are families on vacation” Murphy said. “They don’t want to share a house with a homeowner.”

If the referendum succeeds, Murphy said, he hopes the council finally agrees to set up a committee to help draft “reasonable regulations that we all can live with,” including a possible cap on the number of unhosted short-term rentals in the city.

A YEARLONG BATTLE

As of November 2017, 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. City officials said they have no more recent validated totals.

In July, after several months punctuated by heated public hearings and planning sessions, the council voted 5-2 twice to approve the retooled rules. A majority of councilors said they acted to stop single-family homes from being bought up and rented out for unhosted stays of less than 30 consecutive days at a time. The regulations would have taken effect Jan. 1.

In the retooled 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.

A NATIONWIDE CONCERN

Many other U.S. cities are struggling to rein in short-term rentals, including neighboring Portland, where the city council is already working to tighten rules approved last year. Proposed amendments would reinforce a citywide 300-unit cap on rentals that are not a primary residence, limit the number of units in individual city neighborhoods, allow owners to register only one unit a year, and require owners to provide additional documentation for registration, among other restrictions.

In San Diego last week, the city council rescinded tough new restrictions on short-term rentals rather than put them on an upcoming ballot as required by a referendum petition, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

A measure that would have banned unhosted short-term rentals in Palm Springs, California, was overwhelmingly defeated at the polls in June, according to the Desert Sun.

And in Tennessee in May, the state’s general assembly passed a law that allows cities and towns to regulate and even ban short-term rentals, but it grandfathers or protects existing rentals from being shut down, according to The Daily Times. In January, Nashville’s metro council approved a plan to phase out short-term rentals in single-family homes and duplexes in residential zones that weren’t occupied by their owners, the Tennessean reported.

Campaign signs scattered across South Portland distill the essence of the local dispute. “Homes Not Hotels In Residential Neighborhoods” say the signs asking citizens to vote for the ordinances. “Protect Your Property Rights” say the signs asking residents to vote against the ordinances.

The group fighting the ordinances has raised $8,001 in campaign contributions and spent $5,744 on signs and newspaper ads, according to campaign finance reports filed with the city clerk. Overall, the group has raised $11,275 to fight the ordinances through a fundraiser that’s been posted on gofundme.com for nine months.

Recent contributors of at least $200 include Adam Steinman, Eileen Dugan, Celine Godin, Elizabeth Limerick, Darrell Cooper and Margaret Birlem of South Portland; Elizabeth Vose-Gimbel, Troy McLaughlin and Marilys Scheindel of Cape Elizabeth; Kenneth Thomas, who operates rentals in South Portland and Portland; real estate agent David Marsden of Portland; Thomas Levy of Manhattan Beach, California; and Abigail Lesneski of Chicago.

The group supporting the ordinances has raised $4,155 in campaign contributions and spent $3,326 on signs and palm cards, according to campaign finance reports. Contributors of at least $200 include Councilor Claude Morgan, Louise Tate, Linda and Michael Zweigoron, Melanie Wiker, Barry Zuckerman, Sam Fratoni, Steve Smith, Beth DeTine, and Robert and Diana Joyner, all of South Portland.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: KelleyBouchard

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