The fight over new short-term rental regulations intensified this weekend as supporters confronted petitioners who are trying to gather at least 1,000 signatures by Monday afternoon in an effort to overturn the new rules.
Police issued a cease harassment notice to one of the supporters, who say they’ve been “shadowing” petitioners since Friday because they were overheard giving false or misleading information as they collected signatures. Confrontations occurred in front of Scratch Bakery, at the post office and while canvassing neighborhoods.
Supporters of the new rules say they’re trying to protect residential neighborhoods from being overtaken by commercial home rentals offered on websites such as Airbnb and HomeAway. Petitioners say they’re trying to protect landowners’ rights and fighting for a better municipal review process. Both sides say their rights to free speech were curtailed this weekend.
“We’re just trying to be in the same place they are so we can talk to people and make sure they have all the information before they sign,” said Rosemarie De Angelis, a former city councilor and mayor.
The petition seeks to overturn the council’s 6-1 vote on Feb. 20 to approve sweeping regulations of short-term rentals that will ban unhosted stays in residential neighborhoods. Short-term rental operators who don’t live on the premises will have a grace period before the city moves to shut them down in September.
City officials hope to stop people from buying, renovating and renting out entire homes to transient guests in a community that’s trying to increase affordable housing and preserve residential neighborhoods. Operators of unhosted short-term rentals stand to lose significant income and property investments as a result.
POLICE CALLED SEVERAL TIMES
Petitioners called police several times Saturday, prompting Officer Andrew Nelson to issue a cease harassment notice to Daniel Romano based on a complaint filed by Michael Frabotta, the Preble Street resident who started the petition Feb. 27.
“(Romano) was essentially stalking me,” Frabotta said Sunday afternoon. “It’s scary as hell. The guy is unhinged. My family is afraid to go outside.”
Frabotta said supporters of the new regulations are trying to intimidate petitioners and people who might sign his petition. He said Romano approached and “screamed” at him Saturday while he was standing in front of his house, which is near Scratch Bakery, in the heart of the Willard Beach neighborhood most affected by short-term rentals.
Romano, who also lives in the Willard neighborhood, said he approached Frabotta on Saturday morning because he was standing near Scratch Bakery and holding a clipboard, so he assumed Frabotta was one of the petitioners. He said he didn’t know who Frabotta was, or that he lived there, and he didn’t raise his voice during their brief conversation.
Romano said Officer Nelson handed him the cease harassment notice Saturday afternoon, following an encounter with Frabotta in the Stanwood Park neighborhood. Romano said he was standing in front of the post office at the time, in the Knightville neighborhood, where a petitioner who said he was being paid to gather signatures was giving inaccurate information about the petition.
Romano said when he stands near petitioners gathering signatures in public places, he respectfully asks people to speak with him before signing. He initially did the same thing when they were canvassing neighborhoods, but he now goes a few houses ahead to avoid confrontation.
A 30-year resident of the city, Romano got emotional talking about his effort to protect South Portland neighborhoods.
“I have every right to stand there and talk to people and canvas a neighborhood as they do,” Romano said. “They have a First Amendment right to do what they’re doing and so do I. We have to be wherever they are.”
Romano and De Angelis said they started carrying white board signs on Sunday that said “Talk to me before signing! Please.” They said they intended to continue their efforts to inform potential petition signers through Monday.
Police Sgt. Kevin Gerrish said no other cease harassment notices were issued and no complaints were filed Sunday related to the petition.
The cease harassment notice against Romano is a warning that carries no penalty. It’s in effect for one year and violating it could result in formal charges.
DEADLINE FAST APPROACHING
Frabotta said several people have been collecting signatures and he’s hopeful they’ll be able to make the deadline.
Frabotta has until 4:30 p.m. Monday – 20 days from when the regulations were approved – to gather and turn in signatures from at least 1,000 registered South Portland voters, said City Clerk Emily Carrington.
Frabotta, who said he doesn’t operate or intend to operate a short-term rental, moved to South Portland last spring. He purchased his four-bedroom, single-family home at 430 Preble St. from John Murphy, a short-term rental operator and leader of the group opposing the regulations.
Frabotta said his main concern is the process that the council used to pass the new rules, which included four council workshops with public hearings and two regular council meetings with public hearings.
Frabotta said he also opposes the broader intention of the zoning amendment, which was to clarify that land uses not explicit allowed in the ordinance are prohibited. He said that change allows for the future loss of landowners’ rights.
If the petition is successful, the council will be required to reconsider its vote on the regulations. If the council fails to repeal the regulations, the city will hold a voter referendum on the petition question at the next election.
There are 282 short-term rentals in South Portland, according to a recent count by Host Compliance, a third-party web service. About 200 of them are single-family homes that are not owner-occupied, allowing travelers to rent a whole house or apartment for a few days or a few weeks.
The new ordinance will allow owner-occupied or “hosted home stays” throughout the city, but it will ban from all residential zones any “non-hosted home stays” that don’t have an owner on the premises.
Legal rentals will have to register by April 15 and operate under the new regulations starting June 1.
Operators who don’t meet the letter of the law will be allowed to honor reservations made by Feb. 6 for home stays through Sept. 15. They will have to swear an oath and sign an affidavit that they have a contract for a stay, not simply a booking.