Pam Perry waters flowers in August 2020 at the short-term rental property she restored with her husband, Eric, in Hallowell. City Councilors voted unanimously to push through the third and final reading of a short-term rental ordinance.  Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal file

HALLOWELL — New rules that could require sprinkler systems to be installed in the city’s larger short-term rentals were approved, but existing rentals of three units or more can remain operational without them.

City Councilors voted unanimously to push through the third and final reading of an ordinance pertaining to short terms rentals at Monday night’s meeting via Zoom video conferencing.

Before the vote, Andrea Lapointe, owner of multiple local short-term rental facilities, urged the council not to pass the ordinance changes.

Last month, Lapointe spoke out against the ordinance because a clause about following fire safety codes could have meant that larger short-term rental facilities may need to install sprinkler systems. In January, she told the Kennebec Journal that she would sue the city if she was forced to put a sprinkler in her a rooming house, which has three short-term rental units and four long-term rental units.

“This ordinance is a deterrent,” Lapointe said Monday. “We should be encouraging Airbnbs.”

The ordinance first came before city councilors in August, but changes were accepted during the ordinance’s second reading in January. On Monday, City Councilor Maureen AuCoin, the chairperson of the Short-Term Rental Task Force who oversaw the ordinance writing process, said the ordinance was unchanged from the second reading.

As written, the ordinance defines short-term rental facilities under two categories: “Private home” and “commercial.” 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.

A number of requirements were placed on commercial facilities per the ordinance. Those include:

• 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

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

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

Private home short-term 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.

Backlash against the ordinance came as a result of the clause that required commercial facilities to comply with relevant fire safety codes, which meant that all of the city’s existing three-or-more unit rental facilities may need to put in a sprinkler.

Lapointe, who owns three rentals with a total of 12 units rented through Airbnb, said she is the only person who the ordinance changes would affect.

In the January Kennebec Journal report, Code Enforcement Officer Doug Ide said units like the seven-unit rental that Lapointe owns would need sprinklers, but walked back that assertion Monday.

“The installation (of a sprinkler) needs to happen when there is a change of use,” Ide said. “Since there is no change of use, it would not be required.”

Lapointe also asserted that the “impetus” for the changes was Maple Hill Farm Inn and Conference Center owner Scott Cowger, who sat on the task force who worked on the ordinance. Cowger said Tuesday he disagreed with Lapointe’s assessment.

“I frankly did raise the issue with Mayor Walker and other issues along the way,” he said. “I was just one voice on the working group.”

“In the end, I believe we were unanimous in our recommendation to the council,” Cowger added. “The impetus for the ordinance grew out of working with the code enforcement officer who did great work with the State Fire Marshal’s office.”

He said he believed all lodging institutions with three units or more, either in Hallowell or in other towns, should be held to the same fire safety standards.

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.

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.

Rental property owners Eric and Pam Perry also urged the councilors to grandfather existing rentals, making them exempt from the new rules. City Manager Nate Rudy defended the clause, saying that all of the city’s buildings are required to follow fire safety codes.

“This is a matter of public health and safety and both Doug and I feel it is the appropriate course of action … for public safety,” Rudy said.

AuCoin said the clause that requires a formal change of use before requiring the installation of sprinklers effectively allows existing rentals to continue operation without doing so.

Ide said the city did not even need to include the clause about following state fire safety codes. He said enforcement of such codes is “spotty at best,” but traditional bed-and-breakfasts would need a permit from the Fire Marshal’s office before being able to operate.

Cowger said the new ordinance gives Ide a tool to enforce fire safety codes locally, where the Fire Marshal’s office would be responsible for enforcement otherwise.

Downtown real estate agent Kim Gleason spoke during the meeting in support of short-term rentals, stating that they brought in tourists — and extra money — to the city’s downtown. Lapointe said the ordinance changes could discourage Airbnbs from being operated in Hallowell, and push the business into other towns.

A Tuesday search of Airbnb found 25 listings in Hallowell, most of which are downtown.

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