The Harpswell Select Board has approved the creation of a task force to study short-term housing rentals in the community for possible regulation.

Select Board member Jane Covey presented the proposal at the board’s meeting on Thursday, Oct. 12, and is taking the lead on the issue.

Covey said this spring, town Code Enforcement Officer Tim Clark suggested the development of a policy to address concerns about short-term rentals that may have health and safety issues, such as inadequate fire alarms or septic systems.

She said the task force, which will comprise up to nine members, should take into account Harpswell’s history as a coastal community with many visitors, particularly in the summer.

“We would do a lot of open public meetings and engagement in various ways to hear from people about what they think about the situation,” Covey said.

Select Board Chair Kevin Johnson said several years ago, the board met with real estate agents about the subject and came away with the impression that regulation wasn’t needed.

“But I will say, in the last three years, things have changed dramatically,” Johnson said. “I was kind of, ‘It’s your property, you can do with it what you want,’ and now, (with) a lot of people coming in, I hate to use this term, but they’re using the town for an ATM machine.”

Covey said town officials need to gain a better understanding of the relevant issues and concerns around short-term rentals and find out what’s happening.

Town officials have estimated there are more than 450 short-term rental listings in Harpswell, more than 10% of the town’s roughly 4,200 residences. A recent housing study by the Midcoast Council of Governments made a slightly lower estimate of about 7% of Harpswell homes being used as short-term rentals in July.

“We don’t really know how many there are,” Covey said. “We know that summer rentals have been part of the history of Harpswell forever, and that it’s part of the way the town works and part of what’s expected from people who own property.”

Select Board member David Chipman said town property owners who rely on short-term rentals as a business should be treated as business owners.

“There’s a fella that owns, I think, five Airbnbs here,” Chipman said. “He lives in New York. He doesn’t even come here. He just — that’s a business.”

The board unanimously approved a motion to form a Short-term Rental Policy Task Force “to assess the nature and perceived impact of short-term rentals in Harpswell and develop a regulatory policy” for consideration by voters at town meeting.

The town is now seeking applications from those who wish to join the task force. Applications are available at the Town Office or on the town’s website. The deadline is Monday, Nov. 6.

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