Pam and Eric Perry, on Aug. 12, at a short-term rental property they restored in Hallowell. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal file

HALLOWELL – An owner of three local properties listed on Airbnb said the city would have to take her to court if proposed ordinance changes force her to put a sprinkler into her properties.

The City Council took a second reading of a short-term rental ordinance Monday. Ordinance changes are finalized after three readings, meaning only one more must pass before it is added to the city’s Revised Code of Ordinances.

In the works since last year and under guidance from the Short Term Rental Task Force, the first draft was presented to the City Council in August 2020. Rental definitions have been changed since then, and are now classified as “private home short term rental facility” and “commercial short term rental facility.”

According to the draft ordinance, a “private home short term rental facility” is a single-family dwelling in which the owner resides full time, with one or two sleeping accommodations available to rent for 30 consecutive days or fewer. A commercial facility would be a single-family dwelling, duplex or multi-family dwelling, with three or more sleeping accommodations available for 30 consecutive days or fewer.

Under the ordinance, Doug Ide, Hallowell’s code enforcement officer, said private home defined rentals are not subject to standards laid out for commercial ones or other specific requirements laid out in another section of the city’s Code of Ordinances.

The draft ordinance says commercial short term rentals are required to follow these rules:

• The facility owner must provide at least one off-street parking space per unit.

• Each unit must have access to one full bathroom, private or shared.

• Each unit should have a minimum floor area of 120 square feet.

• Cooking facilities may be used for renters to prepare their own food, but food cannot be prepared by the property owner.

• Mobile homes, campers, recreational vehicle and “other non-permanent structures” cannot be used as short-term rentals

• The rental facility must comply with all relevant fire safety codes, as prescribed by the Maine Office of State Fire Marshal.

• Each unit must contain emergency contact information for the facility’s owner or manager.

If enacted, the ordinance changes would mean commercial rental facilities would be required to install sprinkler systems to meet fire safety codes.

City Councilor Maureen AuCoin, who led the Short Term Rental Task Force through its process of crafting this ordinance, said some operators who want to make the switch from long-term to short-term rentals have pushed back on the sprinkler requirement.

“Say you have a duplex and you’ve been renting it out … as a long-term rental and all of a sudden you decide to go the short-term rental route,” she said, “because the use has changed, you’d be required to put in a sprinkler system.”

Ide said there are no grandfather clauses for life safety codes, meaning that all of the city’s existing three-or-more unit rental facilities would need to install sprinklers to continue operating once the language is finalized.

According to the National Fire Sprinkler Association, the average cost to install a sprinkler system in a single-family home is $1.24 per square foot. For reference, the cost of putting in wall-to-wall carpeting, the association said, is about $3 to $7 a foot.

Andrea Lapointe, owner of three properties with up to 12 Airbnb listings in Hallowell, said she was previously told by Aucoin — when Aucoin was the city’s code enforcement officer — she did not need to put sprinklers in her properties while she was putting in spray foam insulation.

Lapointe said she is locally licensed as an innkeeper. She said she owns a duplex, with two short-term rental units; a rooming house, with three short-term rental units and four long-term rental units; and another home that she lives in, but has up to five seasonal rental units.

Ide said Lapointe’s situation is one of which he is aware, and the mixture of short and long term rentals complicates the labeling of her facilities. Because the rooming house has three short-term rental units, Ide said, it may fall under the requirements forcing it to have a sprinkler.

He said Lapointe’s complaint about having a sprinkler would be directed to the state fire marshal’s office if there is a problem with fire safety codes, but the City Council could decide to file a court case, if needed.

Back in August, 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.

Ide said the city’s definition of rental facilities puts a finer point of the Fire Marshal’s codes.

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.

Ide said the cost for installing a sprinkler system is not usually as high as people would think. He said systems are “designed to be retrofitted,” and usually do not requiring gutting the entire building to accommodate sprinklers.

“I’ve heard wildly different estimates and some of them are meant to alarm investigators,” Ide said, adding that he didn’t have a good benchmark for the cost of a residential sprinkler system.

Pam Perry waters flowers Aug. 12, 2020, at the short-term rental property she restored with her husband, Eric, in Hallowell. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal file

In August 2020, Pam Perry, a member of the task force and the owner of a property rented via Airbnb, took issue with a notion that all Airbnb properties may be forced to install sprinklers.

Ide said a clarification from the fire marshal’s office informed the city that only those with three or more units would be required to have a sprinkler.

Mayor George Lapointe, who is not related to Andrea Lapointe, advocated for getting the ordinance on the books and perhaps revisiting it if inconsistencies are found along the way.

“The perfect is the enemy of the good in terms of getting this started,” he said. “Use it. If we find out there are issues that need to be discussed, we can reinvigorate the task force.”

Aucoin said Ide has been working with rental facility owners through out the ordinance writing process, and after it is finalized would not be going out immediately to issue fines.

According to a search of Airbnb’s website Monday, there are 25 listings in the city.

Ide said that figure does not necessarily indicate that there was 25 separate Airbnbs, because some listings are separate rooms in the same building. He said he was aware of three that may qualify as “Commercial Short Term Rental Facilities.”

Early in the process, Ide said, innkeepers and traditional bed and breakfasts were frustrated about short-term rentals undercutting their rates without having to meet the same performance standards. He said the goal of the ordinance is to keep buildings and people safe, and hold all rentals to the same standards, and has nothing to do with the “market aspect” of the businesses.

Commercial operators are also subject to licensing requirements in Section 7-324 of the city’s Revised Code of Ordinances, which requires innkeepers and victualers, or people who sell food and drink, to be licensed. Innkeepers licenses carry a $100 fee; victualers licenses are $200 if liquor is sold on the premises, and $100 if it is not.

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