The real cost of short-term rentals In Rockport

By John Viehman | Jul 16, 2020
John Viehman

A wide range of perspectives were shared at a recent Zoom-based public workshop designed to hear public input on short-term rentals within Rockport. Not surprising, there was a strong showing from property owners who currently operate short-term rentals and they were adamantly opposed to any form of regulation. They argued quite appropriately that they should have a right to generate income from their property, and I don’t disagree. After all, generating an income is essential to our livelihoods. But let’s call this what is, short-term rental operators are in the “business” of renting rooms.

My concerns revolve around the growing trend of these businesses being operated by property owners who do not reside on the premise and, in fact, don’t reside in the town of Rockport or state of Maine. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but again, let’s be clear, they’re providing lodging for moneymaking purposes. That’s operating a business, the same way a hotel, motel, or B&B operates a business. Customers book their reservations, provide their credit cards, spend a night or two in Rockport, enjoying all the ambiance, natural resources and amenities of our community, and then they leave. House cleaning services take over at that point and prepare the room(s) for the next guest, and the cycle renews itself.

I repeat that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong about operating a business, and I wholeheartedly support free enterprise. But there are some important distinctions that were not being discussed in the public workshop, most likely because they’re not so easily expressed in dollars and cents.

The proprietors rightly contend that their customers support local retail and dining establishments and thus add revenue to the local economy. But let’s back up and ask ourselves, What’s the product that’s being sold? The answer is they’re selling the community we’ve collectively created through hard work and dedication over many generations here in Midcoast Maine. They are in fact selling “us.” You need look no further than the comments posted alongside the AirBNB listings in Rockport to see the glowing comments. We are a loving and often tender mix of themes, such as “lovely, quaint, friendly, cozy, safe...” the list goes on and on.

While we should be flattered, we should also ask ourselves about the impact this growing influx of visitors salt-and-peppered within our residential neighborhoods is having on our sense of who we are as a “community” and our ability to sustain our way of life with dwindling full-time residents to do the legwork.

Yes, yes, it’s nice that all these visitors appreciate our town and spend their discretionary income here. But with the already scarce long-term rental opportunities for people who want to live here year-round, we’re making it harder to find affordable housing. It’s becoming far more lucrative to rent out a home at rates ranging from $150-$250 per night than it is to rent the same space longer-term to, say, a young family for $1200-2000 per month. In fact, depending on occupancy, it can easily be four times greater!

That’s a heckuva business model for the property owner, but it’s doing little to build an actual community for the rest of us. Instead, it’s building a town-wide motel industry and an economic development model that is based on supporting short-term visitors (tourism) as opposed to long-term residents. Remember, the residents constitute the product, and without them, there is no product because we’ve diminished our viable community. Some of the collateral damage includes a reduced workforce for local businesses, a shrinking pool of volunteers and civic leaders (think local charities, community organizations, school boards, town committees, etc.), and a less tangible but real loss of authenticity as we become a community of transients and passersby... “sorry, just visiting.” There are fewer and fewer familiar faces at the supermarkets, banks, and restaurants.

I feel this sense of vanishing community when I gaze out my living room window any given morning. I look at the properties next door and across the street and see cars I don’t recognize from the day before crammed into the driveways. The license plates are from out of state. The occupants come and go, rarely engaging. They’re not unfriendly, impolite or unruly, but they certainly didn’t come here to meet the neighbors and invest their hearts and souls. They could care less... but they do enjoy our gardens at least. The story is repeated up and down the two-block street inside this residential neighborhood. And I wonder, when I need a neighbor, whose door will I knock on when no one actually lives there? When years from now I step away from all the nonprofit boards and town committees on which I serve, who will be there to replace me? And for those short-term rental owners who say they want to retire here someday, what “here” will be left for them?

My wife and I bought this home to live in a town on the coast of Maine and enjoy its unique embrace. Instead we’re finding ourselves living inside a drive-up motel that runs a block in either direction, spawned by technology and online booking services. This is NOT the way life is supposed to be here.

John Viehman is a resident of Rockport and employee of Courier Publications.

 

 

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Comments (4)
Posted by: Valli Genevieve Geiger | Jul 16, 2020 14:44

Great, thoughtful post John. You have hit on the heart of the issue. If I live in my house and rent out an apartment or guest house, I benefit from the income, but continue to live in my community year round and participate fully in my community. If someone from out of town or out of state buys a house in a neighborhood and rents it out by the night or the week, how is that not a business? Our residential neighborhoods have very specific requirements for home businesses. Non-owner occupied weekly rentals do not meet the definition. Placing limits on the destruction of our residential neighborhoods is critical to the vibrant life of our cities and towns in the future..

Thanks for articulating that so well, John.

Valli Geiger



Posted by: Valli Genevieve Geiger | Jul 16, 2020 14:39

Great, thoughtful post John. You have hit on the heart of the issue. If I live in my house and rent out an apartment or guest house, I benefit from the income, but continue to live in my community year round and participate fully in my community. If someone from out of town or out of state buys a house in a neighborhood and rents it out by the night or the week, how is that not a business? Our residential neighborhoods have very specific requirements for home businesses. Non-owner occupied weekly rentals do not meet the definition. Placing limits on the destruction of our residential neighborhoods is critical to the vibrant life of our cities and towns in the future..

Thanks for articulating that so well, John.

Valli Geiger



Posted by: Deb Dodge | Jul 16, 2020 09:13

Very well said. I remember quite clearly that when Jeff and I were considering moving here, we said to ourselves well, at least Camden isn’t like Booth bay or Bar Harbor that goes dark after Columbus Day....oops.

The impact on the cost of housing in our communities makes it harder and harder for young families to buy a home here. (Camden-Rockport). At the very least, our towns should start with a registration requirement to enable us to capture the data to show the loss of year-round housing. We have had a minimum rental period of 7 days in our zoning for over 30 years. But how do you enforce it if you can’t even tell where they are (without having town staff spend all their days on the internet searching) It is an issue that many, many towns have struggled with, some more successfully than others. An ad hoc group in Camden spent a lot  time researching other communities’ approaches, presented it to the SB, then spent their own money with a consultant to create recommendations for short term rental policies. No action. There has to be political will to get it done.



Posted by: George Terrien | Jul 16, 2020 08:56

Your truly sound argument offers excellent recommendation to all communities considering the limitation of short-term rentals, John, with the possible exception only of those which have already sold themselves heart and soul to the passing visitor.



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