Local vacation rental owners defeat bill

Tue, 04/02/2013 - 7:30pm

The vacation rental industry has begun to mobilize.

Their first success was stopping a recent bill that would have required vacation rentals and summer camps to be licensed by the state. Currently, any complaints or issues related to these rental properties are directed to the Department of Health and Human Services.

“An Act to Require All Lodging Places to be Licensed by the State,” would have required vacation rental homes to follow the same regulations issued for hotels, motels, B&Bs and inns, including the installation of sprinkler systems, sanitized dishware, specified water temperature, inspections and changing linens every three days.

On the local front, Audrey Leeds Miller, co-owner of Cottage Connection of Maine, and Melba Gunnison, director, at the 20-year-old rental agency, have taken on a leading role to defeat the bill.

“It would be cost prohibitive,” Miller said. “There is no way a private home owner could do have done that. No one (in the vacation rental industry) was paying attention, and no one realized, when they wrote this bill, about the impact it would have.”

“There are 18,000 to 22,000 vacation rentals in the state,” Gunnison said. “They are second homes owners stay at for a few weeks out of the year and rent out to help cover expenses.”

Sen. John Patrick of Rumford proposed the bill in response to a constituent's issues with larger rental properties operating like B&Bs or inns without having to comply with State laws and regulations. A constituent and B&B owner in Patrick's district believed her low business volume was directly related to independent rental properties operating like a larger lodging business.

Awareness of the bill came unexpectedly on February 25 when a hotel licensing inspector stopped by Cottage Connection and asked to see the company's state license. Gunnison told her they did not have one, adding the business had never needed one since it was established 20 years ago. The inspector called her superiors and learned the Cottage Connection did not qualify under the current law, but the bill would have changed that.

Unfamiliar with this bill, Miller and Gunnison immediately contacted others within their network: Maureen Regan at Seaside Rentals in York; Amanda at Northwoods Moosehead Lake Rentals; and Barbara Heard at Camden Accommodations.

They soon learned that the public hearing on the bill was scheduled for March 27, which left them just two days to prepare. Cottage Connection and their colleagues sent emails to all of their homeowners, local chambers of commerce and other interested parties.

Miller, Gunnison, Regan, Greg Dugal of the Maine Innkeepers Association, and others were present for the hearing and, with the exception of Dugal representing the lodging industry, they testified before the legislative committee about the devastating effect the bill would have.

After hearing all remarks, the Health and Human Services committee suggested the concerned parties form a stakeholders group to meet and try to work out their opposing positions. They put Dugal in charge.

A March 5 conference call brought together 10-12 members of the group and two DHHS representatives. All agreed a place to start was with defining what a vacation rental is. This rough definition of what a vacation rental was developed and presented on March 13 in Augusta:

“The rental of residential property for vacation, leisure or recreation purposes for day, week, or month, typically under 30 days, but not for more that an entire summer or winter season by a person who has a place of permanent residence to which he or she intends to return. SHORT TERM RESIDENTIAL RENTAL use does not include the separate rental of individual rooms within a residential structure or the separate rental of individual rooms within a dwelling unit of a multi-family residential structure.”

On March 13, Miller, representing the Maine Vacation Rental Managers and Homeowners, presented Maine Office of Tourism statistics to demonstrate the negative impact the bill would have on the industry, and state revenue.

Miller and Gunnison say they received numerous calls from vacation rental companies and independent rental owners thanking them for trying to stop the proposed legislation changes.

“They told us we had their support and could speak for them,” Miller said.

One such supporter was Tom McGonegal, owner of the website “Boothbay Region for Rent by Owner,” McGonegal created and maintains the site for independent homeowners with rental properties.

“I live out of state, but I was communicating with Audrey about the bill and keeping the homeowners on my site informed,” McGonegal said. “A lot of people who have homes and rent homes would have to rethink renting.”

“If someone decides vacation rentals need defining and to be regulated, we should be the ones to do it,” Miller said. “Hypothetically at this point, we might want to have a commission on vacation rentals and self-regulate. The Professional Vacation Rental Managers group would be the likely foundation for a new group representing vacation rentals that will focus on legislation and fundraising for a lobbyist.”

“We sort of self-regulate now,” Gunnison said. “We all recognize there are health and safety issues that the homeowners must meet. But now what is our next step, where do we go from here, what do we want to see the outcome be and how do we make that happen.”

Miller believes the industry needs a lobbyist to keep members informed about legislation that could impact it. The advantages of having one became evident recently. Through a lobbyist Miller met, while fighting against the bill, LD330, she learned of a new emergency bill, LD1270 “An Act to Provide That Innkeepers and Certain Campground Operators Are Not Considered Landlords.”

The bill, sponsored by Representative Arthur Verow of Brewer, omits vacation rentals.

In an email to the Boothbay Register Verow said, “Call it an 'anti squatter' bill. The law now, as I understand it, considers anyone staying two weeks at a hotel to be a tenant and the hotel owner is considered a landlord …. The bill I have proposed will protect the owner from being victimized by those who establish themselves as tenants and refuse to leave and not pay lodging fees.

The hearing for this bill is expected to be scheduled within the next few weeks.

“This (vacation rental industry) is a very different entity with its own issues. We need to get organized. We're going to begin getting everyone together in the next few weeks,” Miller said. “We have learned we need to include everyone in the vacation rental industry; listen to what they want to say and move forward with one voice.”

If you are a member of the vacation rental industry and want your voice to be heard and to lend your support to the efforts of Miller, Gunnison and industry members, send your comments to: annie@cottageconnection.com, or call Audrey or Melba at 207-633-6545.