During a recent panel discussion on tourism trends on Mount Desert Island, one speaker offered that visitation continues to surge, even though it has been several years since there has been any expansion in the number of rooms provided by area hotels, campgrounds or resort properties.
Another panelist noted that, in the meantime, there has been a veritable explosion in the number of weekly rental properties and listings on internet rental websites such as Airbnb. In addition to putting a severe crimp in the number of homes available for rent or for purchase by year-round residents, the proliferation of such rentals has generated an impact equivalent to the construction of a dozen large hotels. Were this expansion easily quantifiable in one or two large projects, there would be instant public outcry and opposition.
Meanwhile, little of this “dispersed” development is subject to growth controls. No planning board scrutiny or weighing against goals spelled out in the various towns’ comprehensive plans.
Cruise ship passengers are not the visitors with private vehicles clogging roads in Acadia National Park or circling endlessly for a parking space downtown. As one panelist noted, the Island Explorer Shuttle Bus was designed to alleviate congestion, serving as many hotels and campgrounds as possible, permitting folks to leave their vehicles there for the day. But visitors staying in the estimated 1,000 weekly rentals and Airbnb properties around Mount Desert Island, often in rural areas, have no choice but to drive into downtown Bar Harbor or out into Acadia National Park.
Further, many online properties rent out for fewer than five consecutive days, a clear violation of Bar Harbor’s weekly rental rules. Such operations clearly are businesses in residential areas – essentially unregulated hotels. It will only get worse. Casual online rentals on sites such as HipCamp now encourage people to rent out part of their land to folks who want to camp out for a few days, potentially adding scores of unregulated campsites to the list.
Unfortunately, towns don’t have enough staff or the time to scour these sites for violators. And securing proof of private transactions is difficult.
There might be a way, however, for towns to seek the cooperation from these rental websites to help prevent violations of local standards.
Recently, Airbnb agreed to start collecting the required Maine lodging tax on its website transactions. The state estimates that last year, more than 3,700 properties on short-term rental sites generated more than $25 million in revenue. Next year, Maine may see lodging tax income increase as much as $3 million, thanks to that agreement.
Some rental property owners have little interest in obeying the law voluntarily. A quick check of the Airbnb site alone shows dozens and dozens of places in residential Bar Harbor neighborhoods renting for one, two or three nights at a time, in clear violation of the five-day minimum regulation.
Town officials should request that Airbnb no longer accept, on their site, rentals for fewer than five days, claiming to be in Bar Harbor. Hopefully, the company’s desire not to be a party to breaking Maine tax law also will prevail on that problem. One additional advantage: misleading offerings from other towns on and off island, now listing under Bar Harbor, might be weeded out.
Cooperation from other sites, such as HomeAway, Vacation Rental by Owner and Flipkey, also should be solicited.
In the end, the erosion of neighborhoods and local housing stock holds a much greater threat to the character of our communities than seasonal traffic surges and cruise ships. While towns grapple with the best way to deal with these emerging trends, the few regulations already in place should be rigorously enforced.