2016-08-12 / Community

Kennebunkport to rule on room rentals

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNKPORT — Voters in Kennebunkport are one step closer to receiving an ordinance proposal that would regular the renting of rooms in town.

At their July 28 meeting, the board of selectmen voted 3-1, with Sheila Matthews-Bull opposed and Allen Daggett absent, to forward draft zoning amendments on the topic to Town Attorney Amy Tchao for review. Assuming the language is given the legal green light and approved by selectmen at their Aug. 11 meeting, it could wind up before voters in November.

If adopted, the proposal would supersede current zoning rules, which limit room rentals to homes built before 1972. The new rule would open up private rentals to any home in town, so long as it is owner-occupied, while also expanding the opportunity to the Village East, Village Residential, and Cape Arundel zones, where room rentals are currently prohibited.

The amendment would limit homeowners from letting out more than two rooms, and require that each be rented out for at least two consecutive days, and can me rented not more than once per week, in order to cut back on so called “transient” rentals. However, the new ordinance would not limit long-term rentals, enabling homeowners to still cater to students at local colleges and to seasonal workers.

The ordinance would bad signs advertising rooms for rent, while also prohibiting separate entrances and kitchen facilities. A town license also would be required, along with inspections by local code enforcement officers, which selectmen who favor the idea said would help the town to keep track of rentals in town. Currently, the town has no way of monitoring room rentals, other than to watch advertising on home sharing websites like Airbnb, HomeAway, and VRBO.

After discussing the issue at their July 14 and 28 meetings, and following input from a Growth Planning Committee meeting July 19, the version sent to Tchao will ask her to reconcile the provision that room should be rented no more than once per week with the goal of accommodating long-term rentals, and to add in penalties for violators.

“I think that’s appropriate, you’ve got to have a consequence,” Selectman Patrick Briggs said.

However, Matthews-Bull, owner of the Rhumb Line Resort, and an opponent of residential room rentals since the issue was raised last year, said she predicted the town will have a hard time policing the ordinance, let alone imposing and collecting any fines.

“How do you expect to police this if you are going to allow everybody to rent rooms,” she said. ‘What we’re promoting is that everybody’s house is going to be a hotel.”

However, Briggs said that was not the case, and the appearance that the ordinance might lead to a rash of private hotels, rather than reining-in and providing an oversight of the burgeoning room rental phenomenon was a particular concern of both he and Daggett.

“I thin it’s important for everyone to know that there has been a lot of discussion among the board members in groups of two,” he said. “We don’t want a motel aspect cropping up, because once you go down that slope, you can’t get back up that hill. So, we don’t want to do anything that would cause that to begin.

Briggs went on the discuss conversations he’d had with Daggett about what each would find acceptable in any future amendments to the proposal. Those conversations may have been a violation of Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, which bars municipal officers from having substantive discussions on action before the full board, even in groups of two, outside of a public meeting.

Still, Town Planner Werner Gilliam said any enforcement action would likely result as it does now, on tipsters to the town office.

“Like other violations that are out there, our office relies to some extent on complaints,” he said. “We can’t be everywhere. We can’t see everything. We can’t hear everything. Nor should we. So, I don’t anticipate this being any different in terms of how this is approached.”

However Gilliam also seemed to predict some pushback once a final ordinance draft is approved.

“As we’ve been having discussions with property owners, some have said they are baffled as to why this would rise to the level of having zoning oversight at all,” he said.

Meanwhile, Matthews-Bull pressed her concerns for extending commercial activity into residential zones.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m against this as a resident of Cape Porpoise, in the town that I love,” she said. “When I’m at work all day, I don’t want to come home and have that business surrounding me.”

Still, Briggs predicted the ordinance will work to the good of the town, and of the homeowners with rooms to rent.

“It’s a benefit, like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, that it’s been reviewed and authorized by the town,” he said.

Meanwhile, board Chairman Stuart Barwise jokingly offered a prediction of his own, that Mattherws-Bull would be first in line to help with enforcement.

“You’re going to be looking over your fence, Sheila, I know it,” he said with a laugh, “and you’re going to drop the dime.”

Daniel Saunders, chairman of the town’s growth planning committee, said his group has endorsed the proposal.

“I think it’s a good change. We’re all behind it,” he said. “I’d love to see it get to the voters to let them decide.”

David James, co-founder and president of the Kennebunkport Residents Association, agreed, although he did voice some reservations about removing the restrictions on post-1972 homes, and extension of room rentals to three new zones.

“To me, it doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal,” he said. “It seems to be an improvement over what we have now.”

Even so, assuming the proposal is acted on in time to make the November ballot, that may not be the last voters hear of the issue. After all, the amendment only addresses room rentals.

“I think the next piece of this, talking about whole house rentals,” Selectman Ed Hutchins said.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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