Hitting the pause button on short-term rentals

By Valli Geiger | Jan 18, 2018

I remember when bed-and-breakfasts became a thing in the U.S. I was in my 20s and loved the idea of staying in houses with interesting architecture and unique furnishings instead of hotels and motels where everything looked the same. I loved the great homemade breakfasts you had there. I remember my mother was horrified, because sometimes you had to share a bathroom.

Bed-and-breakfasts grew roots, went from new fad to firmly in place in most towns and after a decade or so, you rarely had to share a bathroom.

Now a new thing has arrived. Ten years ago, no one had heard of airbnb, then suddenly the young, the hip, the wired knew all about it and they traveled everywhere, staying on someone’s couch for $10, and in someone’s extra room for $20, or in someone’s empty house or New York apartment for more. It was underground for a long time, buyers and sellers finding each other online and rating first the places and then the travelers, so everyone had a sense of what they were signing up for.

Now, it is established everywhere, every city, so many countries. I read about a woman who stayed in someone’s small hut in Nepal, found online. With growth came concerns about competition from hotels and bed-and-breakfasts, then came concerns from renters as the long-term market dried up in the popular places, because the money was so much better if you rented by the night or the week. Now communities are wondering if they will lose their neighborhoods to transients, with shuttered houses in the off-season.

I have rented a cottage on the beach or an island in Maine for one or two weeks most summers of my adult life. We arrive with bags of food, friends, kids, cats and the dog. This is part of Maine, summer houses, summer cottages, summer communities like Bayside in Northport, or Billy’s Shore on Islesboro or the great beach in Scarborough. People are wanting to travel with pets and kids, or need a gluten-free kitchen, or to stay in a real neighborhood so they get a better sense of the place they are visiting.

But, as a community, I believe we are allowed to set limits. In Rockland, residential zones allow for some home occupations, but not commercial enterprises. We have two kinds of short-term rentals in Rockland: owner-occupied, where the owner lives in the principal dwelling and rents a room, a suite, an apartment, or an accessory dwelling. This seems to resemble owner-occupied home occupations. The other is non-owner-occupied, where the house is owned and rented out on a short-term basis. Some non-owners do it as an investment, buying several in popular destination towns, some rent a house to pay the property taxes until they are ready to retire to it. As houses go from occupied to transient, it begins to feel like a commercial enterprise.

It has been 18 months since we regulated and permitted short-term rentals. We are learning that the South End is a very popular place for STRs. Are we OK with the South End becoming a Bayside? How many houses can turn into STRs and still maintain a neighborhood, a community? What is the tipping point, where the neighborhood becomes a summer enclave, dark eight months of the year? This is the conversation we need to have. Austin, Texas, limits STRs to 3 percent of houses in each zip code. Portland allows owner-occupied, but has now set limits on non-owner-occupied STRs.

Rockland City Council is considering hitting the pause button. I have proposed limiting non-owner-occupied STRs to what we have now plus room for a few more who are well along on their permitting process. This may be temporary or permanent. We as a community get to decide by having a conversation about what we want, what we value.

A public workshop will take place at 5:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 29, at City Council chambers. The public hearing will take place Feb. 12 at 6 p.m. at the next council meeting. Council will then vote this amendment in, vote it down or postpone it for more discussion.

So come to chambers, write to council, speak at the workshop or hearing. What is your vision, how do you feel about STRs? Do we need limits? Or is it bringing tourists and needed renovation to old housing stock? Or both?

Valli Geiger is in her second term on Rockland's City Council and is the city's mayor. She is a registered nurse who holds a master's degree in sustainable design with an emphasis on green building, smart growth and new urbanism.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Stephen K Carroll | Jan 19, 2018 08:44

All good points vallie. Controlled growth is better. Hope people come out and speak.



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