STOCKTON SPRINGS, Maine — Residents of this quiet waterfront community are wading into a debate that has been fought in many communities around the state: whether — and how — to regulate short-term rentals.
A Thursday morning community meeting at the Stockton Springs Town Office drew about 40 people to hash out the issues they perceive and to begin talking about local solutions.
“I think it’s an ongoing conversation,” said Jessika Brooks-Brewer, the CEO of French’s Point, a private estate and wedding destination in Sandy Point village. “I think an ordinance is something that could benefit everybody.”
As more and more property owners in Maine use Airbnb and other websites to help pay for property taxes and generate income, the conversation around regulating the practice has taken on increased urgency. A number of communities, including Cape Elizabeth and Freeport, have passed local rental regulations and the Maine Legislature has considered several proposed statewide regulations for the practice.
Currently, Stockton Springs does not require short-term rental property owners to register with the town and no one knows exactly how many properties are used this way. Brooks-Brewer said that she did a rough search and found 52 listings for different properties. Short-term rental properties are allowed wherever there is a residence, according to a letter from town attorney Ed Bearor that was distributed at the meeting.
Although there are dozens of short-term rental properties in town, several residents who spoke mentioned just one: the Cow Palace, a historic summer cottage on Lighthouse Road on Cape Jellison.
John Vallely and a few other neighbors who live close to the Cow Palace cited the large, noisy groups of renters who have stayed there in the past as a problem that has created tension in their neighborhood. Noise travels easily over the water, they said, and the property’s owners, who live out-of-state for much of the year, can feel too far away for comfort.
“You have no control of what goes on when you’re living somewhere else,” Vallely said. “Short-term rentals are machines to create those problems.”
He suggested that one solution would be to have property owners present or nearby when they rent out their homes.
Patricia Twum, a registered nurse who also lives close to the Cow Palace, said that the groups of renters have at times diminished her feelings of peace and even security in her home. Once when renters were doing karaoke outside at 2:30 a.m., she did complain.
“Those gentlemen came across to my street and heckled me,” she said. “What I’m saying is, nobody wants to regulate what people do in their own houses [but] we live in a small community … We have to go forward [and put] something in place to protect the neighbors who live here all year round.”
But Jane Rago and Scott Griffin, who live in Savannah, Georgia, and own the Cow Palace, describe it as their family sanctuary on the information they share with renters. The couple spends four or five months a year there, they wrote, and rent it out only a few weeks in the summer and fall. In the description, they specify “absolutely no noise after 10 p.m.,” saying that it is a quiet community. They also list phone numbers for two local contacts who can quickly respond to problems at the Cow Palace. They have shared those numbers, and their own cellphone number, with several people who live in the neighborhood.
“The assumptions and falsehoods about us and summer rentals are taking a toll,” Jane Rago wrote in a letter that was read aloud at the meeting. “Last summer, not one person on Lighthouse Road in Stockton Springs contacted us even one time.”
Other Stockton Springs property owners who do short-term rentals at their homes said at the meeting that they work to set up stringent guidelines and carefully check out would-be renters before accepting their reservations.
“It’s up to us homeowners to set the guidelines,” Carol Colley of Sandy Point said.
Jillian Liversidge, who rents to short-term tenants on Rocky Point Road, said she also reads the reviews left about would-be renters before accepting them.
“We all live here. We can work through this,” she said. “Let’s come up with something reasonable. The majority of us are very responsible homeowners and neighbors.”
Short-term rentals play a critical role for many in the community, others said.
“This is an important economic engine of our town,” Noelle Merrill said.
Meg Haskell of Sandy Point, who said that she loves to stay at Airbnbs when she travels, mentioned another potential issue with short-term rentals. In places where lots of people rent their properties this way, including nearby Belfast, there is an affordable housing crisis, she said.
“The availability of affordable housing is non-existent in Belfast,” she said. “I think we lose something when our neighborhoods are no longer welcoming and available to middle income families.”
Town officials wrote down ideas, including the creation of a rental registry, and plan to hold another community meeting on the same topic.
“I think we all need time to digest things that we’ve heard,” Betsy Bradley, one of the town’s municipal officers, said.