Thoughts on the Rockport Short-term Rental Ordinance

By John Viehman | Nov 19, 2020
John Viehman

The following letter was sent to the Rockport Select Board Chair and the other Select Board members following this week’s meeting on a draft Short-term Rental ordinance:

Hi, Debra.

I wasn’t aware that there was going to be a discussion of short-term rentals on the agenda for last night’s meeting, and I only received a copy of the draft ordinance an hour beforehand. So I’m sorry I couldn’t reserve a place to comment via ZOOM (despite my best efforts to contact Diane Hamilton, per the instructions).

I’ve already submitted my concerns in writing to the Select Board but you’ll find them attached once again just in case they haven’t made it into your stack of reading material. As you’ll recall, my concerns focus on what type of community we’d like to provide for our residents in the face of an obvious and rapidly growing trend for short-term rentals.

I would add a couple additional points about last night’s meeting:

To Select Board member Kelley’s comments that very few residents showed up to voice support for short-term rental regulations:

Consider the difficulty in navigating the logistics in our meeting formats, and how challenging it is to access the ZOOM format, as opposed to showing up at the start of the meeting in person.

Making conclusions about the “importance” of a given issue based on how many people speak for/against any given issue at any given meeting is not a statistically viable method for polling or surveying. In fact, it’s well proven that those with an immediate short-term interest will speak up in far greater numbers than those with a long-term interest. Clearly short-term rental owners have a vested interest in opposing something that potentially impacts their pocketbooks and business interests. There are many parallels in our society to this phenomenon (e.g., residents opposed to tax increases, zoning ordinances, etc.)

I believe it was your response that it’s very uncomfortable for neighbors to speak up in public about the short-term rentals issue, simply because it literally pits neighbor against neighbor in an increasingly polarized world. Speaking from my personal experience, I’ve struggled in my relations with my two neighbors as a result of this. It wasn’t my intention to question their rights. They bought what they bought at a time when there wasn’t an ordinance in place. I get that. I accept that. But that doesn’t mean allowing an open field day on short-term rentals throughout the town is good practice or policy. The fact remains that there is an obvious and growing trend. It’s obvious just based on the number of short-term rental owners that are showing up at these meetings. It’s palpable if you just walk a street in the Village especially.

My concern continues to be about the long-term impact on our “community.” None of the short-term rental owners appear to factor this into their equations. None speak about the quality of life and preserving that in our special piece of Maine—the very community itself, created by the people who live and work here, that make visitors want to come again and again. None refuted the categorization of short-term rentals as Commercial use. Yet they insist on their right to conduct Commerce in zones clearly marked for Residential Use only. I find it interesting that many of these same people are the first to stand up (and even hire lawyers) to oppose a small hotel in the Downtown District, where it’s allowed usage under the Land Use Ordinance. To call this a “representative” sampling is simply absurd, frankly.

To the draft ordinance:

This is a great start at crafting language to address my concerns. I especially commend those selfless volunteers who took the time and applied their considerable expertise and talents to create this “draft” short-term rentals ordinance. It’s unfortunate that many of the speakers last night didn’t understand how the process works, and that, quite simply, this is only the beginning. It’s a good one. But it’s only the beginning. From here, we at least have something tangible that people can focus on to have a meaningful conversation and move us forward to a reasonable (read: compromise) conclusion. To question anyone’s intent after they’ve spent their highly-qualified skill sets and hours of their time bringing us to this point is simply unfair and offensive.

I did hear some good suggestions on adjustments, among them:

Adding an inheritance clause.

Reducing the number of minimum nights (this isn’t my preference as a resident but it’s a reasonable compromise). A five-night minimum would effectively accomplish the same thing and I believe aligns with Rockland’s ordinance.

Doing further research on the best way to assess short-term rental income (e.g., AirBnB takes care of state taxes, etc.)

While I hadn’t thought of it, fire pits are an attractive nuisance and only encourage after hours gatherings that invariably grow in volume, so setbacks make sense.

Extending the time for garbage removal (this is Maine, after all), but I would ask that short-term renters do NOT place their garbage bins out at the curb. It feels too much like suburbia and not a Village, plus I’ve observed that the garbage bins often sit empty or full for days before/after pickup.

Aspects I appreciate in the draft include:

Distinction between Owner-Occupied and Non-Owner-Occupied. Heads off a host of issues, including speculative real estate investing.

Allowing more short-term rentals for Rockport residents supports local management and accountability.

Clearly distinguishing that short-term rentals constitute “Commercial Use.” This gives the town, as well as the Planning Board, clear guidance for both enforcement issues and individual exceptions (aka, Conditional Use) going forward.

Off-street Parking Requirements. We’re past due to require this for short-term rentals.

Moratorium of two years after enactment... gives us the necessary time to see what we have (good and bad) and amend ordinances and practices accordingly.

Display of short-term rental use. I would presume we would do this via window sticker, which gives another way to assess the volume of usage.

Signage restriction. I’m not wild about encouraging signage for short-term rentals, since it emphasizes the “emptying out” of some neighborhoods, which can impact resale values, among other less tangible values (aesthetics). Perhaps there is a way to standardize the design so it’s more uniform and, presumably, less obnoxious to the neighbors and passersby.

Grandfathering of existing short-term rentals, with no ability to “sell.” Helps current owner(s) but precludes making short-term rentals a long-term business investment (i.e., building equity based primarily on short-term rental aspects in a Residential District).

Placing a “cap” on short-term rentals. This just makes good sense to ensure there’s a balance of Commercial activity and to ensure we can have a benchmark to assess/regulate community impact. After all, there is a finite “carrying capacity” to short-term rentals. Ultimately we can rely on the Comp Plan and other community conversations to guide us on making adjustments going forward.

Responsible Agent. Having someone available to be responsive and/or on location within a reasonable time assures issues can be addressed quickly and effectively. Can we require that the contact info be shared with abutters?

Strict penalties for non-compliance assures short-term rental owners take this ordinance seriously. We’re either all in or there’s no reason for the ordinance.

Again, I want to commend you for tackling this prickly issue. You’ve conducted yourself in a civil and respectful manner, moving with purpose and consideration of all residents. We’re fortunate to have your leadership and that of other Select Board members on this issue.

John Viehman is a Rockport resident and the Executive Director of United Midcoast Charities.

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