PI Planning Board, Council reject rental registration ordinance after landlord opposition

3 years ago

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — After three hours of discussion and debate, city officials voted against an ordinance that would have put in place a registration process and yearly inspection schedule for rental properties in Presque Isle.

On Thursday, the often contentious public hearings — one in front of the Planning Board and another before city councilors — featured many local landlords and attorneys, most of whom spoke out against the proposed Residential Rental Registration Ordinance.

Discussions regarding the ordinance have occurred for approximately nine months, Galen Weibley, the city’s director of economic and community development, said. 

A working group consisting of two landlords, two tenant rights groups, the Presque Isle Housing Authority, Aroostook County Action Program, two city councilors, the code enforcement officer and Weibley drafted the ordinance after more than 900 hours of meetings and deliberations.

The ordinance would have required all landlords to register their rental units within a year and include their contact information. Landlords living more than 60 miles from the city would have been required to hire a manager able to respond to tenant calls 24/7. 

There also would have been a yearly inspection schedule with penalties for landlords not abiding by those rules. Inspection guidelines would have included a classification system to determine the extent of a building’s repair issues and whether those issues posed a safety risk to tenants.

Lawyer Jeff Ashby, who owns Ashby Law Office on Park Street, expressed disfavor of the ordinance on behalf of clients who are landlords. He called the ordinance a “regulatory scheme” that would give the city too much power and be “redundant” to landlords who already have strong reputations for maintaining their properties.

“I represent clients who are not the target audience for this ordinance,” Ashby said. “This ordinance is burdensome and imposes additional costs to being a landlord.”

Presque Isle-based attorney Adam Swanson asked the planning board whether some type of “incentive-based” system could be developed to entice more landlords to rent properties in the city instead of the proposed inspection and registration-based system.

“Landlords could get a seal of approval for maintaining property standards,” Swanson said. “It would be better than this punishment-based system.”

But Matt Dyer, an attorney from Pine Tree Legal, disagreed with Ashby and Swanson, citing the importance of ensuring that all rental properties meet building and life safety codes and avoiding potential tragedies. 

Dyer, a member of the ordinance working group, pointed to his experiences as a tenant advocate in Lewiston. He recalled deadly fires in 2013 that took the lives of families due to building code violations.

“Presque Isle is not Lewiston, but we need to keep up with the problem [of condemned and unsafe buildings] before we have a crisis,” Dyer said.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — July 15, 2021 — Pine Tree Legal attorney Matt Dyer expresses support for the now rejected Residential Rental Registration Ordinance during a public hearing hosted by the Presque Isle Planning Board. (Melissa Lizotte | The Star Herald)

Several landlords spoke during the public hearings, including Amy Collins, who operates Collins Rentals in Portage Lake and other properties in Presque Isle with her husband Jim Collins. She said that most landlords already have long lists of repairs to make at their properties and work hard enough to meet code standards without a regular inspection schedule.

“We all take pride in our buildings and try to provide healthy, safe places for people to live,” Collins said. “I know something needs to be done [about city properties] but it doesn’t need to be done this way.”

Kevin Thortensen, a landlord who has been part of the ordinance working group, criticized the city’s choice to only have two landlords be part of that group. He said that many landlords, himself included, work full-time jobs in addition to managing rentals and do not have time to attend daytime meetings.

“That’s what I’ve been saying from Day One,” Thortensen said. “For the majority of landlords, this [ordinance] was done from the perspective of an outsider looking in.”

Planning board member Brandon McDonald made the motion to reject the proposed ordinance, which resulted in a unanimous vote from the board in favor of rejecting it. McDonald cited similar concerns as Thortensen about the working group.

“I’m one of the individuals who drafted this ordinance, but even at the time I felt that it neglected feedback that we need,” McDonald said.

Though the majority of city councilors agreed with the landlords’ concerns, several pointed out what they believe to be the need for compromise to ensure tenant safety and a greater number of rental options in Presque Isle.

Council chairperson Kevin Freeman said that the city’s intention with the rental registration was to find out exactly how many rental units exist in the city. Doing so could help the city find incentive-based funding programs to help landlords who want to build or repair apartment units, he said.

He also questioned the landlords in attendance about why many expressed approval for yearly fire department inspections of units but not a regular schedule for full inspections.

“We know most landlords are doing a good job. This is not about looking over your shoulders,” Freeman said. “If you know you’re doing good work, why should you have problems with anyone coming into your building?”

In the end, the council voted unanimously to table public discussions of a rental ordinance until the Jan. 5, 2022, council meeting, with the intention of exploring potential conversations with landlords in the coming months. All councilors except Randy Smith and Mike Chasse were present for the vote.