Pam and Eric Perry, on Wednesday, at the short-term rental property they restored in Hallowell. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

HALLOWELL — City officials are mulling details of new changes to city ordinances that offer performance standards for short-term rentals that may level the playing field for traditional lodging businesses.

A Short-Term Rental Ordinance Task Force, led by City Councilor Maureen AuCoin, has been reviewing the proposed changes. The task force’s work informed a draft written by Code Enforcement Officer Doug Ide presented to the City Council.

The first of three readings was passed by a unanimous vote following a short public hearing on Monday. Changes can still be made to the ordinance until the final reading.

Currently, Ide said, properties offering short-term rentals on websites like Airbnb are not subject to any ordinances in the city. He said his role with the ordinance is to keep guests in short-term rentals safe, such as with the traditional places like bed and breakfasts that are subject to stricter requirements.

Another goal of the task force, Ide said, was to level the playing field for traditional short-term rentals and the newer rentals.

AuCoin said she wouldn’t use the phrase “leveling the playing field,” as short-term rentals fall between traditional commercial lodging, like hotels or bed and breakfasts, and traditional apartment rentals. Further, short-term rentals come in different forms.

“A short-term rental could be a large multi-unit building in which the owner does not reside or it could simply be a single-family home in which the owner occasionally rents out on weekends when he (or) she is out of town,” Aucoin said. “The difficulty is finding the balance between making sure these units are a safe asset to our community and not imposing unnecessary restrictions or burdens.”

The draft changes available before Monday’s City Council meeting define “owner-occupied” and “non-owner-occupied” short-term rentals, and adopts performance standards for those properties.

The draft changes state that owner-occupied short-term rentals consisting of “two or fewer” units are not subject to parking requirements or zoning requirements. If there are more than two units in an owner-occupied property, they must comply with performance standards described in a section related to “non-owner-occupied short-term rentals.”

The proposed performance standards include providing at least one full bathroom, at least one parking space, a minimum floor area of 120 feet, and smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Further, the rental “shall comply” with local life safety codes where applicable.”

Hallowell residents Pam and Eric Perry, who own a property listed on Airbnb, were the only residents who spoke during the public hearing.

Pam Perry, who is active on the task force, took issue with a section of the draft that states “each rental unit shall comply with local life safety codes where applicable as enforced by the State of Maine and all local fire and building codes.” She said that it could mean that every Airbnb unit would need sprinklers, fire doors and two exits, which could require costly changes.

“(It) would pretty much shut down all Airbnbs,” Pam Perry said.

Pam Perry waters flowers Wednesday at the short-term rental property she restored with her husband, Eric, in Hallowell. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Eric Perry said the city has “loosely” enforced life safety building codes in the past because it would be impractical for the city, and costly for residents, to require older buildings to be brought up to code. He said the changes would make the lives of short-term renters more valuable than lives of long-term renters.

AuCoin, a former code enforcement officer, said the city does not go through existing apartments and ask them to upgrade to sprinkler systems. But she said the city may have to if those buildings are made short-term rentals, if this ordinance were to be enacted.

“It is a gray area and it could potentially have a big impact on existing short-term rentals in Hallowell,” Aucoin said.

Ide said he was unsure if ordinance would be retroactive, meaning all properties, even those already developed, would need to be altered to meet life safety codes.

Aucoin said it was her understanding that “existing short-term rentals would be expected to comply with whatever ordinances are put in place.”

“The … task force will be meeting soon to discuss details surrounding those expectations,” she said. “Building codes differ slightly for existing buildings and uses, versus new buildings and change of uses, so there may be some ‘grandfathering’ of rules involved depending on the specifics of a unit.”

Ide said he has been in touch with the state Fire Marshal’s Office about what exactly would be needed to bring short-term rentals up to code, but has not gotten firm guidance.

“We want to understand what that means,” he said. “If that means if they just need to have smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, if we’re going to make them comply with life safety codes … there is some ambiguity right now.”

Ide said he has seen discussions about short-term rentals in an email forum with other code enforcement officers.

“There does not seem to be much uniformity state-wide as to how (short-term rentals) are regulated in terms of life safety issues,” he said. “In any event, the issue is certainly bigger than just Hallowell’s attempts to address zoning and code issues relating to (short-term rentals).”

Assistant State Fire Marshal Rich McCarthy said all buildings in Maine must meet life safety codes, but those are different for “new” and “existing” homes. He said short-term rentals often are still coded as houses or apartment buildings, unless they are differentiated by local ordinance.

For newly constructed two-unit buildings, McCarthy said, there is no requirement for a sprinkler system. If a third-unit was added it would require a sprinkler system, he said, but if that building always had three units, it would not need a sprinkler system.

McCarthy said there is no “cookie cutter” approach for local coding for short-term rentals, as the age of the building, number of units and owner-occupancy are all variable for each property.

The state Fire Marshal’s Office inspects public buildings, he said, but the municipality would handle local enforcement of residential or commercial buildings. When asked about the specific wording of Hallowell’s ordinance, McCarthy said it may need a bit more fine tuning to find out what properties the city “was trying to capture.”

Ide said there are more short-term rentals in Hallowell than “you might think,” and a lack of standards for those rentals disadvantage traditional bed and breakfasts. According to Airbnb, there are 23 listings in Hallowell, 14 of which are downtown.

“Maple Hill Farm (Inn And Conference Center) has sprinkler systems … but an entire building devoted to Airbnb doesn’t necessarily need to have one of those,” he said, adding that Airbnbs could charge lower rates than Maple Hill.

Maple Hill Farm’s Innkeeper Scott Cowger, who has also participated on the short-term rental task force, said his business’s expansion plan had to be reviewed by the state Fire Marshal’s Office before receiving a permit from the city. Those plans also included a sprinkler system and accessibility requirements.

Cowger, who said his business uses Airbnb to book its rooms, said those standards should apply to “any lodging.”

“Innkeepers have always had to do that,” he said. “The state’s life safety code applies everywhere, (but) there’s not really any enforcement out for properties.”

Cowger said it was hard to tell if his business has lost potential revenue to short-term rentals, but could not quantify it.

“I welcome competition; we’ve been here 28 years,” he said. “I’d rather have more folks come to Hallowell and pick a traditional hotel room, but the more options the better.

“But they have to be safe for the guests; that’s paramount,” Cowger added. “It is unfair to just open the door and say ‘here you go.’”

According to a January 2020 report, almost 542,000 people stayed in Maine properties booked through Airbnb in 2019, with the platform’s Maine hosts earning about $91 million last year, an all-time high.

Some Maine communities, including Portland and South Portland, have enacted rules limiting the number of short-term rentals and require registrations and safety inspections. It likely hasn’t slowed the platform’s growth in Maine, as the number of guests and host earnings have more than tripled since 2016.

Similarly, Waterville officials have been contemplating rules for short-term rentals, with the most recent movement coming this month, after a resident complained about a short-term rental property in a residential district.

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