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August 21, 2019

Bar Harbor council: Affordable housing is in crisis

Bar Harbor street Photo / Laurie Schreiber With what some are calling an affordable housing "crisis," Bar Harbor neighborhoods are losing year-round residents.

The Bar Harbor Town Council has scheduled a workshop to discuss potential ways to address what some councilors are calling an affordable housing crisis. 

At the council’s meeting last night, Councilor Gary Friedmann presented a framework of six potential discussion points.

They included stopping new permits for non-hosted, short-term vacation rentals. 

“We know that local families rely on Airbnb-type revenue to be able to afford to live here,” he wrote. “But town investors have discovered that they can buy up multiple dwellings in almost every zone to rent by the night. Let’s put an end to this neighborhood-busting practice before the 2020 season begins.”

Suggestions also included:

• Re-opening a discussion to draft a rooming-house ordinance to encourage on-site and safe, appropriately located employee rooming houses and dormitories.

• Working with Jackson Laboratory to plan for appropriately dense housing adjacent to its Bar Harbor campus that fits with the character of the community and contributes to the tax base.

• Continuing discussions with the Island Housing Trust and Maine Coast Heritage Trust to encourage additional creative housing and open space initiatives, such as a project underway at the head of Mount Desert Island, called Jones Marsh. The project includes conservation of part of the marsh and development of workforce housing on an upland portion.

• Amending the land-use ordinance to allow more dwelling units, including short-term vacation rentals, in zones served by town water and sewer.

Another idea presented by Friedmann was to work with the National Park Service to transfer to the town of Bar Harbor the 40 acres in Town Hill that was earmarked in the 1986 Park Boundary Legislation for an island-wide solid waste transfer station. The transfer station is no longer needed, he noted, and the parcel could instead be developed through a public-private partnership to provide year-round affordable housing; seasonal park service employee housing; a solar array that could power all island municipal, park and school facilities; and connecting trails to a nearby preserve.

Friedmann proposed swapping with the NPS an old connecting route, Breakneck Road, that’s surrounded by park land. He added that if the service decides to develop the 40 acres on its own, the development would not be subject to town zoning. 

“On my way to the meeting tonight, a resident to of 40 years in Bar Harbor said to me, ‘I don’t want to live in an empty town,’” Friedmann said in his opening remarks. “When we built our house on in 1983, it was a family neighborhood, kids running up and down the street all year long. Now in the winter it’s dark. Most of the homes are either employee housing, short-term vacation rentals, or season rentals.”

The council made affordable housing a top priority at its goal setting session last October, he noted.

“Since then, we’ve done nothing about it,” he continued. “I think it’s time that as a council we take a stand and acknowledge that what we’re looking at is a housing crisis. And if we acknowledge it’s a crisis, then we need to act accordingly and do something now.”

Councilor Erin Cough agreed it was time to talk about housing, but suggested a workshop format.

“It’s our job as councilors is to look at the bigger picture,” Cough said. “There’s a lot to talk about, such as what actually is the crisis. What’s the actual problem? Is it a problem with housing inventory, housing at specific prices, in certain parts of town? Availability is nebulous idea. It has to be tied to something like inventory. Are we talking about new housing, renovation of existing houses?  Is it single-family homes, multi-family homes?”

Councilors agreed to a general discussion of the topic, using Friedmann’s document as a framework. They scheduled the workshop for Sept. 16 at 6 p.m.

“It’s complex problem,” said Councilor Joe Minutolo. He added, “Overall, housing is in short supply.”

Last month, the council voiced overall support for the concept of allowing employee and workforce dormitories as well as rooming houses as uses in the town’s zoning ordinance, but rejected proposed changes, saying additional work needed to be done to better define terms in the proposal.

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