ROCKPORT — The Rockport Select Board met Feb. 10 and approved a timeline aiming to place an ordinance regulating short-term rentals in town before voters on the Nov. 3 ballot. The board also considered a proposal by 2A Architects to design a new West Rockport fire station and discussed placing a bond question for the new building the ballot in 2021.
Short-term rental regulations
At the Monday night meeting, the board approved a timeline submitted by Town Manager Bill Post, and which aims to have an ordinance outlining rules and regulations concerning short-term rentals ready for approval by Rockport voters at the November election. The timeline is as follows:
March to April 22: Staff Research other municipalities regulations, permit structure, ordinances
April 27: Staff present research to Select Board and receive direction
April 28 to May 20: Staff prepare draft regulations
May 26: Staff present draft regulations/ordinance to Select Board
June 8 or 22: Workshop/public hearing on draft regulations
June to July 8: Staff make changes after public comments, further Select Board direction
July 13: Second and final workshop (if necessary)
August 10: Select Board vote to approve regulations/ordinance and place on November ballot
August 25: Ballots ordered
October 3: Absentee ballots available
November 3: Election/Special town meeting
Last September, the Select Board organized a public hearing seeking resident opinions regarding short-term rental properties in town; according to the board, the hearing was held following a suggestion by the Ordinance Review Committee.
At Monday night’s meeting, no members of the board, nor the Town Manager, commented on the impetus for the short-term rental ballot question, however board member Debra Hall said that residents had been asked to weigh in on the matter via the Town’s website and Facebook page.
Positive aspects of short-term rentals shared by those who spoke at the forum last fall included the opportunity to generate income to offset Maine’s high property taxes and provide guests with an “authentic” experience, which, in turn, encourages them to shop at nearby businesses and support the local economy.
Those who spoke out against short-term rental properties said short-term rentals changed their neighborhood atmosphere. And, they said, the availability of short-term rental properties reduces the number of affordable, long-term housing options in the area.
Rockport citizen Elizabeth Berry told the board that she has lived in her home on Amsbury Hill for most of her life, a home that has been in her family for generations. Berry operates a rental within her home, and is always in residence when her tenants stay.
She said that her decision to offer a short-term rental was catalyzed by her need to supplement her income in order to pay the town’s high property taxes and ensure that her home can remain in her family for years to come. She said that in this first year of renting, the only time her neighbor was aware that she offered an Airbnb was when a renter came to the neighbor’s driveway by accident.
Resident Melissa MacCoole said that two of the largest groups of visitors to Rockport are students visiting either the Maine Media Workshops or the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship. Those attending these schools are typically searching for a monthly rather than yearly rental, based on the duration of the course. She added that the proximity to the Pen Bay Medical Center also brings several travelling nurses to the area, who rely on short-term property rentals.
“Airbnb and short-term rentals are excellent for people who are visiting. I think they get a more authentic experience getting to stay in someone’s home, maybe feeling more of the community. [Renters] are giving money to families rather than a larger hotel, and for the families who are offering these services, it’s almost like a small, family-run business,” said resident Kelsey Anderson.
She continued, however, to say that she experienced great difficulty finding long-term housing options when she decided to move to Maine permanently from New Hampshire.
Rockport resident John Viehman told the board that properties on either side of his home had been purchased and renovated with the express purpose of being turned into short-term rentals.
He said that since they began operating as such, the constant comings-and-goings of renters has significantly affected his sense of community and relaxation and created a fragmented atmosphere, compounded by not knowing or having significant interactions with his next door neighbors.
The following summary of the public forum appears on the Town of Rockport website; it does not mention the positive aspects of short-term rentals that were shared:
“Comments from residents distinguished between hosted short-term rentals (where the owner is present and rents rooms or a separate building on the same property) as opposed to those that are un-hosted (where the owner is off-site and the home is sometimes used as an investment opportunity). Some residents indicated that it is difficult to find long-term rentals in the Rockport area and the un-hosted short-term rental practice makes this even more difficult. Others expressed concern about the way in which un-hosted rentals change the character of our neighborhoods.”
West Rockport Fire Station
Amanda Roberson Austin, of 2A Architects, provided the board with an estimate of schematic design services her firm would provide to design a new West Rockport fire station at the intersections of Routes 17 and 90. The scope of work Austin outlined would include working with civil and structural engineers to design the building and create floorplans, as well as providing an initial cost estimate for the project.
Post said the expectation was to have a bond question for the new building prepared for June 2021 elections, should the board and the town engage 2A Architects to complete this initial phase of work.
Austin said the proposed structure would include a two-bay garage capable of storing four fire trucks, a sleeping area for firefighters, a meeting room, showers and additional storage space. She pointed out that initial work on the site had already been done to prepare for the project, specifically a construction ‘pad’ site of concrete slabs.
“[2A] have been involved, at least in the discussion of the fire station for around two years, we had previously submitted a proposal last summer that was approved but was not acted on,” said Austin.
“Thank you, Amanda, let me just say that’s it’s not been from a lack of interest, it’s just that as you know we were changing from one Town Manager retiring to a new Town Manager who hadn’t arrived yet, so that was why things didn’t get done last summer,” said Hall.
Austin said that the initial work on the site had been completed by Gartley & Dorsky Engineers, which involved regrading the site to provide level pads for the new fire station; the town has yet only issued permits for this phase of work. She said 2A would work with Albertson Builders and Services to prepare a cost estimate for the structure, which would then go before the board and Rockport voters for approval. Post said that some funding for this first phase of schematic work, estimated to cost $11,8000, had been provided for in the upcoming municipal budget.
During a discussion of the proposed project, Selectman Doug Cole asked if it would make more sense for the town to build a larger fire station in West Rockport at the intersection of Route 17 and Route 90, and do away with the in-town station at 85 Main Street.
Post and Fire Chief Jason Peasley pointed out the location of both stations was necessary for fire insurance reasons and the outlying topographic area they covered at either end of the town, in addition to response times associated with the two locations. Post said there have been functioning issues with the West Rockport station for quite some time.
“This is one of the projects that’s been sitting there and not getting a lot of momentum, and there’s a definite need for it. We’re also looking at [emergency medical service] and this structure would have a role to play with that, as well,” said Post, adding that there would be space for ambulance storage.
“There are issues with the West Rockport Fire Station as we all know, and we’re dealing with them constantly so it’s one of those things where we might not want to put money into the station, but it needs to be functioning as it is, and it seems like we’re fighting little battles every week,” said Post.
Selectman Jeff Hamilton asked Post to create an outline of “best practices” concerning how the board should proceed with a timeline for the project and placing it before voters.
The next scheduled meeting of the Rockport Select Board is Monday, March 9 at 6:30 p.m. at the Rockport Opera House.