MOUNT DESERT — Without a major rehabilitation and expansion, the future of the Asticou Inn in Northeast Harbor will be in serious doubt, officials of the Asti-Kim Corporation, which owns the historic inn, told the planning board here Dec. 12.
They said they want to replace the 31 existing rooms in the inn with about 20 larger ones and replace the three octagonal cottages next to the inn with several new cottages or an annex with perhaps 21 rooms.
“In its current configuration, the Asticou…is not sustainable,” said Alex Kimball, Asti-Kim’s vice president and treasurer. “We’ve got to do something different if we’re going to keep the Asticou as a going enterprise.”
Asti-Kim President Jim McCabe said a huge amount of the inn’s revenue goes into simply maintaining it.
“The maintenance costs rise over time significantly, and you’re not really upgrading the experience for the guests; what you’re doing is trying to hold the building together,” he said. “And that puts you at an increasingly competitive disadvantage.”
The size and configuration of the inn’s guest rooms is just one problem, according to Gregg Scott, an architect who lives in Lancaster, Pa. and Northeast Harbor and has been working with the Asti-Kim officials.
“There was an exhaustive report done about a year and a half ago by a structural engineer, a systems engineer who did a complete top-to-bottom evaluation of the inn and gave a report card,” Scott said. “It’s not a report card you would want to get if you were in school, so it has to be dealt with.”
McCabe said that having fewer but larger rooms in the inn building would be more appealing to guests but, at the same time, it would increase the need for additional revenue. That is why the corporation would like to remove the three octagonal cottages, called topsiders, each of which has two guest rooms, and build several new cottages or an annex to the main inn building.
“We would like to have more than six rooms in the area where the topsiders are currently,” McCabe told the planning board. “The idea would be to do it in a way that enables the inn to have more cash flow than it currently does. It’s very marginal in terms of its profitability, and we need more cash flow to service any debt we would have to incur to upgrade the building.”
Another way to help offset renovation and construction costs, McCabe said, would be for the Asti-Kim Corporation to sell houses it owns around the Asticou. Currently, two of those houses, known as the Bird Bank and Blue Spruce, are used by the Asticou as guest accommodations. Together, those houses have seven guest rooms. A third house, Cranberry Lodge, has had guest rooms in the past.
The four planning board members at the meeting expressed support for the concept of refurbishing the inn and building more rooms. Board member Joanne Eaton called it “a beautiful idea.”
But there is a problem, a rather large one.
As a commercial enterprise, the Asticou is a non-conforming use in the town’s Shoreland Residential 2 zoning district. As such, the area of non-conformity cannot be increased. That means the three topsiders can’t be replaced with more or larger cottages or with an annex to the inn.
“That’s why we’re here [before the planning board],” Kimball said. “We’re not going to be able to do something different without the assistance of the town of Mount Desert, because as it is presently zoned, [the inn] basically is not supposed to be there.”
The planning board members appeared to be open to a zoning change that would make the Asticou a conforming use and, therefore, able to expand. But board Chairman Bill Hanley pointed out that spot zoning for a particular parcel of land isn’t allowed, so any change in permitted uses would have to apply to the entire Shoreland Residential 2 zone.
Board member Meredith Randolph said the Asticou has always been a commercial enterprise and no one wants that to change.
“[But] we want it to be in conformity [with the zoning regulations],” she said. “So, we need to make the zone meet the use rather than trying to make the use meet the zone. If we like having businesses in certain locations, we should zone them to be a business in that location.”
Mount Desert resident Greg Johnson, who attended the planning board meeting, offered another possible solution. He said that if Asti-Kim were to sell the houses it owns, returning them to private residential use, that would reduce the square footage of the Asticou’s zoning non-conformity. He suggested the Asticou might be able to apply that amount of space to new cottages or an annex, thus enabling the Asticou to add guest rooms without increasing the total area of non-conformity.
Code Enforcement Officer Kim Keene said she didn’t know offhand whether that would be allowed. But planning board members and Ed Bearor, the Asti-Kim’s attorney, indicated they thought it was an idea worth pursuing.
“If we came to you with a proposal for not increasing the square-foot area of the non-confirming use and that was deemed by the town to be appropriate, we could just go forward with a typical [planning board] review process?” Bearor asked.
Hanley encouraged him and the Asticou officials to start by presenting the idea in greater detail to the town’s land use advisory committee, which weighs in on zoning and other land use matters.
The Asticou officials said that if they are allowed to build new cottages with more rooms or an annex to the inn, they would like those buildings to be winterized so they could be open and generating revenue all year.
While Asti-Kim owns the inn, it is operated by Acadia Corporation.
“Thanks to Acadia Corporation, the kitchen area, the deck area and the food at the Asticou have become an enormous draw for the place,” McCabe said. “If we can have rooms that are available longer [in the year], it enables us to keep that kitchen open longer, too.”
The original Asticou Inn, which opened in 1893, was destroyed by fire in September 1899. It was rebuilt over the winter and opened for business the next summer. It has been enlarged several times over the past 100-plus years.
The topsider cottages were built in 1970, eight years before the town adopted the Land Use Zoning Ordinance, which would have prohibited their construction.