RANGELEY – After three years of renting two floating camps on Rangeley Lake, a local woman is being told by town officials to close her business immediately, following a stop-work order from Town Attorney Kristen Collins.
Rheanna Sinnett, owner of Just Add Water Floating Camps, was heading into her third year of renting the small aquatic homes out to tourists and locals alike. The rentals were listed on Airbnb, as well as on a private website operated by Sinnett. Promoted as isolation at its best- Sinnett offered several options for an overnight: tied to the dock owned by her family, moored just off the dock, or anchored in a private cove. Sinnett did not allow customers to operate the boats. Though customers would usually come and stay put in the cabins, they almost always patronized local businesses on their way in or out of town according to Sinnett. The business was operating at 84 percent capacity- much higher than the average hotel, she said.
“I was starting to flourish. I had built a very successful business here,” Sinnett said.
However, the Rangeley community wasn’t pleased with the success, Sinnett said, and last week that displeasure brought Sinnett’s business to a screeching halt with the serving of a stop-work order.
According to interim Town Manager Traci Lavoie, Sinnett refused to apply for a Conditional Use Permit that former Code Enforcement Officer Tom Lillis was requiring as of June 1. Lavoie said that due to an overload of work, the CEO had not addressed the house boats sooner. Sinnett had already been in operation for two and a half years, in compliance with all town regulations accordingly, before any town officials took notice.
“She did come in to speak to the planning board, but she didn’t have a CUP. They requested she leave and come back with a CUP,” Lavoie said.
Applying for a CUP is a lengthy process, and costs money; Sinnett said she wanted to discuss what she viewed as false claims before going through the process.
In March, Town Attorney Kristen Collins had deemed Sinnett’s floating camps as a “Commercial Facility Requiring Shoreland Location”, rather than a residential business, as the other 118 lakeside Airbnbs are classified. The request for the CUP was not mentioned in the attorney’s ruling, but came several months after. Lavoie said the list was lengthy as to why Sinnett’s camps were considered commercial rather than residential, but included that the structures were “non-conforming” and they were not being used as a dwelling. Sinnett reported that she did live on one of her boats while she was in between homes last summer, and that many rentals are considered “non-conforming” such as yurts, treehouses and canvas tents.
As a result of the attorney’s ruling, and the following CUP request, Sinnett decided to operate her houseboats using the Oquossoc public dock as the pick up/drop off location for guests. She received the stop-order several weeks later. The town was also requiring Sinnett to submit a CUP to use the public dock, but according to documents submitted by Sinnett, that requirement doesn’t stand for any other business in Rangeley. When Sinnett requested to see those permits for other businesses, a town official noted “no permitting is required to use public docks.” Sinnett reported that twice the Board of Selectmen met and discussed Just Add Water Floating Camps without publishing the item on the agenda.
“The requirement for a CUP is simply the most recent of many attempts from this group of people in Rangeley who do not want my houseboats to exist in any way. Nor do I believe it will be the last,” Sinnett wrote in an email to Lavoie, current CEO Bailey Beers, and others.
According to Sinnett, she and her father Kevin Sinnett made several requests for a meeting and discussion regarding the commercial vs. residential ruling of her business. Due to the changing over of officials, both the CEO and the Town Manager left their positions, the requests for meetings were disregarded. Sinnett said she wasn’t sure what to do, so she continued to prepare for the summer season. She had a fully booked summer for both boats, and was working to meet all of the requirements set by the COVID-19 pandemic. The next communication she received from the town was the stop-work order which she received in early June.
The Floating Boats were not only successful in Sinnett’s eyes, but had gained attention from Down East Magazine, the Maine Small Business Association and the Maine Office of Tourism for the boats’ eco-friendly offerings. Sinnett said she was preparing to work with the Office of Tourism to showcase her boats in promotional videos to attract people inland.
Sinnett said she will not apply for the CUP, as she believes the false accusations and requirements will not end.
“The harassment that my family and I have experienced over the past year is unacceptable in a community that we have lived in, supported, and tried to build up for over 37 years. Rangeley has been ruined for me. I no longer wish to live here, encourage others to visit here, or support and foster economic and community development here,” Sinnett wrote.
Code Enforcement Officer Bailey Beers declined to comment. Selectboard members Stephen Philbrick, David Burgess, Ethan Shaffer, Cynthia Egan and Donald Nuttall did not respond to requests for comment.