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June 7, 2021

As Bar Harbor’s housing crunch continues, a proposal for 10 affordable units may help

rendering of housing development Courtesy / Island Housing Trust Seen here is a conceptual rendering of the proposed Jones Marsh affordable housing development.

As vacation rentals have spiked in recent years, Bar Harbor has been grappling with a shortage of affordable, year-round housing.

The demand for housing may be partly eased if a proposal to build 10 affordable housing units receives approval.

The Jones Marsh Affordable Housing Development is proposed as cluster development on a 30-acre lot in a village called Town Hill, on Bar Harbor’s outskirts. Road frontage is on Route 3, a primary corridor to the west side of Mount Desert Island. The west side is less heavily trafficked than the east side, where most of Acadia National Park’s popular destinations are located.

Island Housing Trust, a Bar Harbor nonprofit that promotes permanent workforce housing on Mount Desert Island, proposes to subdivide 20 acres into nine lots. Six of the lots would have single-family homes and two would have two-family homes, for a total of ten dwelling units. One lot would be reserved for open space.

The remaining 10 acres would be maintained as is and held by the trust. 

All units would be sold as affordable housing. The single-family lots would be sold with houses to be built by the owner. Duplexes would be built by Island Housing Trust, with each unit being sold as a condominium unit. 

The development has been designed under a designation called “planned unit development,” which means lots and frontages can be halved, allowing for a tighter development area. 

The projected development cost is $1.5 million. According to the trust, it is in the early stage of a $3.5 million campaign that has as one of its primary objectives funding the Jones Marsh development. It has met more than half of the fundraising goal to date.

aerial of woods
Courtesy / Island Housing Trust
Clustered development on the proposed site, outlined here, would be designed to protect forest and wetlands.

Work to date includes digging test wells and developing energy-efficient designs for the units, according to the trust’s spring newsletter. The goal is to begin construction by early fall.

According to MaineHousing, the median home price in Bar Harbor, in 2019, was $430,000, requiring a median income of $118,590 to afford it. 

But Bar Harbor’s median income is $56,893. An affordable home at that income level would be $206,291.

An Island Housing Trust survey several years ago found that 70% of people working on Mount Desert Island live off-island.

Nimble and affordable

Part of the goal is to work around natural resources on the acreage, including significant wetland area, vernal pools and forest cover, Michael Rogers, a principal with LARK Studio in Bar Harbor and the project representative, told the Bar Harbor Planning Board at a recent virtual meeting.

“We’re trying to keep it tight and nimble and affordable,” said Rogers.

To that end, project planners were seeking modifications to the town’s standard suite of setbacks and lot sizes. 

The point of the planned unit development designation was “to save on resources both natural and financial,” Rogers said.

The modifications were aimed at making development of the site affordable, which would contribute to affordability of the units themselves, said the trust’s executive director, Marla O’Byrne.

The 30 acres is part of a 60-acre parcel purchased jointly by Island Housing Trust and Maine Coast Heritage Trust in 2018.

Island Housing Trust’s land is on an upland portion. The goal is to provide year-round housing that’s permanently affordable to people earning a median income on Mount Desert Island. The development is designed to cluster dwellings, thus reducing land use by up to 50% per lot, reducing infrastructure and negative environmental impacts, while providing protected open space, according to the application.

Preference would be given first to Bar Harbor residents and then to employees of the town or of a public school in Bar Harbor. 

Affordability covenants

The trust has established a set of affordability covenants applicable to its various developments on Mount Desert Island. The covenants limit the equity that homeowners may accrue in order to keep the houses affordable over time to individuals and families of similar income. 

The trust was founded in 1989. Since 2003, it has completed 46 homeownership projects.

One of the trust’s goals is to keep its homes affordable for middle-income households from one homeowner to the next. 

“I think you have an amazing project that’s a good bang for the buck for the amount of affordable housing being created,” said Bar Harbor’s planning director, Michele Gagnon.

The board agreed to move the proposal forward to a  public hearing on July 7.

Affordable housing, sometimes called workforce housing, is much needed in Bar Harbor, where the affordable-home market of yesteryear has been overwhelmed by vacation rental markets like Airbnb.

In 2019, Bar Harbor’s planning department created a housing policy framework that defined a goal of supporting Bar Harbor’s year-round community “by having adequate and affordable workforce housing for residents who work in town, for families hoping to raise their children here, for seniors hoping to stay in the community as they age, and for businesses looking for a stable workforce and housing base needed to expand the town’s year-round economy.

The framework identified a number of strategies to accomplish that goal, including working with Island Housing Trust and creating partnerships with large employers, including the Jackson Laboratory, Mount Desert Island Hospital and College of the Atlantic, to identify ways to work together to create housing.

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