Let’s be clear about this. Short-Term Rentals (STRs) are businesses operating without regulation, usually within residential zones. That wouldn’t happen with other types of businesses, because they are regulated. And if they were operating in zones where they weren’t allowed by virtue of an ordinance, they would be illegal. That’s why we have a Land Use Ordinance (LOU), to give some sense of order if and when certain activities are allowed within the community. That’s simply how things work in the world.
The fact that historically people have rented rooms in their home or their entire home for a summer is not relevant here. And in the dustup over Rockport’s proposed ordinance, those types of rentals are being exempted, anyway. So let’s not confuse the issue.
The primary reason STRs have become so abundant here in the Midcoast and elsewhere is due to technology and the internet, new marketing tools that make them very attractive business models. Citing historical precedent and claiming that STRs have always existed is really a non sequitur. It’s comparing apples to oranges.
Not surprisingly, property rights have emerged as the dominant theme in the public comments to date. STR owners scream that their property rights are being violated if they aren’t allowed to operate STRs at will. Well, let’s talk about my property rights as a residential property owner in a neighborhood zoned as primarily “Residential.”
When I bought my home I rightly and fairly assumed I was buying the right to live in a neighborhood free of commerce, with long-term neighbors like me on either side and up and down my street. The price I paid presumed this simple fact.
I bought my home based on presumed property rights, and having high-churn businesses operating next door was never part of that calculation, nor should it have been. It decreases my property value.
By way of illustration, if an automated car wash started operating next door, it would adversely impact my property value and the zoning violation would be pretty obvious, so it wouldn’t be allowed to happen. Well, STRs are just car washes by another name.
STRs are a new type of business model that is simply flying under the radar of our current LUO, which is why we need to address it ...and sooner than later, before we end up with totally dark neighborhoods like they have in southern Maine.
Beyond the legal wrangling over property rights, the prevailing theme I’m hearing to the proposed ordinance really boils down to self-interest, or put another way, plain and simple greed.
So far all the people speaking against an STR ordinance are in the STR business and quite logically they’re approaching this issue from their own personal self-interest (read: pocketbook) and many don’t live here to feel the impact. Their objections should be considered for what they are and not representative of the broader population.
Not one of the STR owners has even given lip service to the larger good of the community or the long view of what kind of town we’d like to live in. Are we really becoming only about, What’s-in-it-for-ME? Can’t we allow ourselves to consider, What’s-in-it-for-US?
The real question we face is, what kind of community do we want to cultivate here in Rockport? Is it a place where people actually live, work, and play? Or is it only a place for fleeting visitors from away?
One builds true “community,” the other is the customer base for supporting a “town-wide resort motel” that only benefits a select few. At the rate STRs are increasing, we’ll soon be at a point where the bulk of affordable housing stock is owned by non-resident owners who manage their properties as businesses under the guise of unregulated STRs and taking their profits elsewhere.
And the value of the remaining housing stock (because non-STR properties will be in such short supply) will be disproportionately high and unaffordable to the average family looking for a place to live. Do we really want that to be our legacy?
John Viehman is a year-round resident of Rockport