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July 23, 2019

Bar Harbor council: Proposed workforce housing amendment needs work

bar harbor zoning map
Courtesy / Town of Bar Harbor
Bar Harbor’s downtown residential zone is currently included in proposed zoning changes that would allow group housing. Town officials agree the zone needs to be removed, and other tweaks made, before a townwide vote.

Although voicing overall support for the concept, the Bar Harbor Town Council rejected proposed changes to its zoning ordinance that would allow employee and workforce dormitories as well as rooming houses.

At their July 16 meeting, council members said additional work needs to be done to better define terms in the proposal.

The proposed changes, which were approved by the planning board at its June 19 meeting, were originally scheduled to go to public hearing on Aug. 20 and for a town vote on Nov. 5. 

Among the council’s concerns was a provision to allow dormitory and rooming house uses in a downtown residential zone — a measure designed to ease the shortage of workforce housing. 

Not allowing dorms in the downtown residential zone “negates the potential positive impacts from these uses,” said Councilor Stephen Coston, who added that he is 100% in favor of the proposed uses.

As the term indicates, the zone consists primarily of residential neighborhoods that sit behind the downtown commercial areas or alongside strips of small bed-and-breakfasts.

The council said the definition of “family” was also confusing in the context of “group sleeping accommodations” allowed in the three uses. Other issues to be addressed included adding a minimum-stay requirement in order to avoid the facilities being used as transient accommodations; and enforcement issues related to preventing transient accommodations.

“We’re just dumping it on our code enforcement office to say, ‘Best of luck,’” Councilor Erin Cough said.

“The zoning has been one constant mess after another,” said Council Chairman Jeff Dobbs. “I don’t feel comfortable putting this on the ballot as it is.”

But Coston said that, overall, he supported the proposed changes, with some tweaks, as a way to help employers house their workers.

“It’s better for all parties, for people trying to live here and trying to run a business here,” he said. “So I want to move forward.”

At the June 19 planning board hearing on the proposal, several downtown residents said that workforce dorms and rooming houses in downtown residential districts wouldn’t be appropriate, particularly given the pressure on year-round housing stock from other uses, like vacation rentals.

The goal of the proposed changes is to provide more housing stock for employees, and to address overcrowding and safety concerns for individuals housed in a group setting, according to town documents.

Acadia National Park is also looking at workforce housing issues for its seasonal park employees. At the June 3 meeting of the Acadia National Park Advisory Commission, Park Superintendent Kevin Schneider said a possible site for workforce housing has been found that would involve partnering with a private developer to build housing to be shared with the park, with some housing possibly for other seasonal businesses and organizations. 

In an email update, Acadia’s public affairs specialist, Christie Anastasia, said the park is continuing its legal and policy review to determine how to implement the legislative authority that allows a public-private partnership to develop employee housing on park land. Once the review is complete, the National Park Service will prepare a request for proposals, anticipated to be issued this fall.

If Acadia is successful in using that authority, it would be the first National Park Service unit to do so, she said.

The RFP will be used to select a partner to develop and manage the employee housing under a lease for up to 50 years.

“Downeast Transportation Inc. might be one of the park's partners that uses the proposed housing for its seasonal Island Explorer drivers,” she said.

A potential development site on Harden Farm Road in Bar Harbor has been identified as a possible  location for development. 

“This location was identified in the park's 1992 General Management Plan,” she said. “We already have a small housing development with eight units in that location, which is at the edge of downtown Bar Harbor.”

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