State planners grappling with short-term rentals consider new regulations

The Land Use Planning Commission has received various complaints about renters from permanent residents.
An airbnb sign with its logo attached to a building.
Photo by Raysonho/Wikimedia.

Maine’s largest land use authority wrapped up a series of summer meetings Wednesday as it considers how to regulate short-term rentals across its over 10.4 million-acre expanse for the first time.

Staff members for the Land Use Planning Commission entered a string of community meetings in June with rule recommendations that would fall well short of more stringent regulations passed elsewhere in the state.

While vacation hot spots like Bar Harbor and Kennebunkport have capped the number of short-term rental licenses and charge an annual fee for their acquisition or renewal, LUPC planners recommended a system that would have property owners provide notice of their rentals to the commission and self-certify that their properties meet a set of standards.

The LUPC began exploring potential regulations of short-term rentals hosted on platforms like Airbnb and Vrbo in March, amid growing complaints from residents in the unorganized territories around Maine, according to the group’s executive director, Stacie Beyer.

“We have felt an increase in the number, the breadth and the intensity of the complaints coming in,’’ Beyer said.

Some complaints from nearby property owners concerned noise, parking and trash pileups, while others stemmed from environmental concerns about the capacity of wastewater disposal systems for rentals with a large number of guests.

“I have the right to the quiet enjoyment of my own life,” said Valorie Starbird, who has a home on Moosehead Lake, at an LUPC community meeting where homeowners complained about the noise and other activities from nearby rentals. 

At the end of 2021, there were 569 active short-term rental listings in the LUPC service area, according to data gathered by the LUPC from AirDNA — a database that summarizes rental listings from Airbnb and Vrbo.

Many of those were in the lakes and mountains region, where Rangeley and Sandy River Plantations together had over 100 listings. 

More recent AirDNA data on the Rangeley Lake area — including parts of Rangeley Plantation and up toward Kennebago Lake — show an 48% increase in available rentals between this June and three years ago, from 320 to 474.

Many notes from concerned citizens are pinned to a board.
Residents in the Greenville area posted their conflicting opinions on short-term rentals at a Land Use Planning Commission meeting in June. Photo courtesy the LUPC.

A March memo from LUPC planners described the influx of rentals in the Rangeley and Moosehead Lake regions as a contributing factor in the availability of housing for long-term renters or sale to full-time residents, according to comments from residents in LUPC’s service area.

The commission’s 2022 planning projects coincided with a broader analysis from the Commission to Increase Housing Opportunities in Maine — a bipartisan body established to review data on housing shortages for low- and middle-income residents, and the conversion of housing units to short-term rentals.

One product of the legislative body was a recommendation to create a statewide database of short-term rentals to determine what role, if any, they have on the broader availability of affordable housing.

At a July meeting with community members in Rangeley, LUPC senior planner Tim Carr said the staff-recommended notification rule would help the LUPC gather more information on short-term rentals in the commission service area.

The notification system would be less burdensome than applying for a permit, Carr said, and would align with LUPC processes for establishing other uses, like boat launches.

It would also provide the LUPC with contact information for rental owners and help resolve issues the group has with acting on nuisance complaints from neighboring residents.

“Currently (when) we receive complaints we often don’t know who to contact,” Carr said. “It’s very burdensome.”

Carr said the notification system could be built on an electronic or paper form that would gather rental-specific information on the number of bedrooms, maximum number of guests, septic capacity and parking spaces. 

That information would align with the concerns of LUPC area residents that planners identified when they began looking into potential short-term rental regulations.

At the Rangeley meeting and during a virtual meeting Wednesday, LUPC planners heard opposing concerns that the proposed regulation was too restrictive or did not go far enough.

Starbird said she’s felt the negative effects of short-term rentals near her Harford’s Point Township home on Moosehead Lake, where she and her husband have lived since 2002.

The couple bought the property in 2001, Starbird said, and built a house they moved into a year later.

“We kind of bought what we consider to be a retirement home before retirement,” said Starbird, who works in the healthcare industry. “It’s a very nice location for somebody who likes to live in the country and enjoy a kind of waterfront lifestyle.”

Map showing which parts of Maine had active short-term rentals.
A map showing the number of active short-term rentals during the fall of 2021.

Then, almost two decades later, a pair of Airbnbs cropped up north and south of their property. 

What followed, Starbird said, was a stream of renters who bucked Airbnb rules forbidding parties in rental properties, and who played loud music and set off fireworks late at night.

It wasn’t until Starbird went to the Airbnb to the north of her, which she said is the closest and noisiest, and spoke with a cleaning crew that she was able to get the contact information of the rental manager.

“One thing that would really help a lot,”  Starbird said, “is to supply us with a phone number of the landowner so we can call the landowner ourselves with our issues, and apparently that’s what the (LUPC) is considering with the notice system.”

Even with the manager’s contact information, Starbird said, her complaints have been ignored.

“I’m very happy that the LUPC is taking another look at their own rules … but I don’t think the (notices) go far enough. I’ve mentioned at every meeting I can attend that they should be permitted … charge for a permit, and help hire another staff member if you have to.” 

At the same virtual meeting, an attendee who said he owned an Airbnb in Lily Bay Township, about five miles northeast of Starbird, warned the LUPC not to go too far with its regulatory proposal.

“Local businesses would take a hit,” the attendee said, because areas like Moosehead Lake and Millinocket lack adequate hotel capacity for tourists. “These cabins supply people with the ability to come and visit Maine, who will spend a lot of money in these places.”

The Airbnb owner said he was OK with the notice system LUPC planners were proposing, but not the performance standards that short-term rental owners would have to self-report on.

“Do we check the capacity of septic tanks on every home in the area? How’s (a rental with many people) different from a house with 10 kids?” he asked, saying it would be a double-standard to impose rules on landlords renting their homes on Airbnb if those rules aren’t applied to year-rounders.  

“I just don’t know how we police that and check on it.”

The ultimate path the LUPC takes depends on its nine-member board, which will receive a presentation on the planners’ findings at its September meeting.

Other regulatory options detailed in LUPC planning documents include a registration system with a possible fee, and the ability for the commission to revoke a registration for non-compliance after a hearing.

The most burdensome option, staff members wrote, would be to require homeowners who are renting out their property to obtain a permit.

Carr said the public comment period will remain open, and as staff members receive more community input, what they ultimately present to the board members could shift before September. 

Then, LUPC board members could decide to abstain from implementing any short-rental regulations, proceed to rulemaking on the staff-recommended regulation, or some other rule. 

Beyer said if board members do consider a rule, a year-long process would ensue, entailing more public comment.

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Emmett Gartner

Emmett Gartner covers accountability and Maine's rural communities as a Roy W. Howard Fellow through the Scripps Howard Fund. Emmett earned his master’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism and a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from the University of Vermont. While working as a reporter at the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism, he helped produce two award-winning investigations: “Printing Hate,” which documented the historic role of newspapers inciting racial lynchings, and “Mega Billions,” which investigated state lottery operations. Most recently, Emmett reported on health and environment for The Frederick News-Post in Maryland. He previously worked for the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon and interned for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
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