MOUNT DESERT — Members of the town’s land use zoning advisory group appear eager to find a way for the Asticou Inn in Northeast Harbor to expand, something that isn’t possible under the current zoning ordinance.
The Asti-Kim Corporation, which owns the inn, wants to undertake a massive renovation of the main building and reduce the number of guest rooms, some of which are very small, from 31 to perhaps 22 or 23. At the same time, they would like to build an annex with about that same number of rooms. The annex would replace the three round “topsider” cabins near the main building.
But the inn is in a shoreland residential zoning district, which does not allow for any new hotels or the expansion of the only existing one, the Asticou.
“We can’t expand our footprint; that means we can’t increase our use,” Ed Bearor, the Asti-Kim’s attorney, told the town’s land use advisory group Jan. 29. “So, we need a zoning change.”
He and Asti-Kim officials first outlined their preliminary ideas for modernizing and expanding the inn at last month’s meeting of the planning board, where they were advised to take their zoning dilemma to the land use advisory group. That group includes Town Manager Durlin Lunt, representatives of the board of selectmen and planning board, local business owners and civic leaders. The group’s meetings are led by the town’s planning consultant, Noel Musson.
“Making any change to the LUZO (land use zoning ordinance) is not easy,” Musson said at the Jan. 29 meeting. “I think it would be to everybody’s benefit to have a thoughtful process.”
Given that, along with the fact that the advisory group and planning board have other land use issues to deal with, Musson said it is unlikely any zoning change to benefit the Asticou could be ready for a vote at the regular town meeting this May.
Bearor called that “unfortunate.”
“I would be hopeful that if we aren’t able to do this in May of 2019, that there might be a special town meeting at some point where we could.”
The Asticou, built in 1883, thrived as a resort hotel for generations. But in the 1960s, when it and the larger Kimball House hotel were on the brink of financial failure, a group of families formed the Asti-Kim Corporation and bought both hotels. One of its first actions was to sell the Kimball House.
“Shareholders today are heirs of those people,” Asti-Kim Vice Chairman and Treasurer Alex Kimball told the land use advisory group. “The corporation’s sole purpose is to keep the Asticou Inn running. Any profit it makes gets plugged right back in to whatever repairs are needed.
“Lately, the problem is that the inn simply cannot generate enough as it is currently constructed to keep up with the necessary repairs,” Kimball said. “Something’s got to change. It’s not sustainable as it is.”
David Woodside, president of Acadia Corporation, which holds the contract to manage the Asticou, agreed.
“It’s a struggle from day to day,” he said. “The inn has a dedicated clientele that comes year after year, and they are accustomed to some of the quirkiness of the inn and some celebrate it, but it is a struggle.”
He indicated that, before Acadia Corporation took over management of the Asticou in 2015, the inn had gotten a reputation for not being very welcoming to local residents who might want to dine there.
“I think we’ve made the inn welcoming to the island community as a whole,” Woodside said. “There is no one standing on the porch saying, ‘Go away.’ I think we’ve been successful in reversing that.”
Chuck Bucklin was one of several members of the land use advisory group who advocated finding a zoning solution that would allow the Asticou to expand.
“I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t want to see the Asticou thrive,” he said.
Stephanie Reece agreed and told the Asti-Kim officials, “If you guys had to sell out to someone, it would be a shame to see a big corporation come in there. It would be nice for you guys to have a full house.”
Selectman and advisory group member Rick Mooers said, “More important than just the structure that exists at the end of the harbor, we’re talking about a quality of life issue. It’s not just an individual’s quality of life, but the community’s quality of life.”
Gregg Scott, an architect who is volunteering his services to the Asti-Kim Corporation, said the proposed “expansion” of the Asticou probably would add only one or two rooms. There are currently 44 guest rooms spread among the main building, the topsider cabins and two former private residences on the property.
Scott said the additional rooms in the proposed annex would be offset by a reduction in the number of rooms in the main inn, the elimination of the cabins and the sale of the two residences.
He said the Asti-Kim board would like the proposed annex to be heated and insulated so that it could be open all year.
“That would allow the historic inn to be brought up to code, up to expectations, but not redesigned for what it never was,” Scott said. “It was never built to be operated 12 months a year. You’d really have to stand on your head to pull that off, and it probably wouldn’t be a good investment.”
Town and Asti-Kim officials will try to find a solution to the zoning obstacle to an expansion of the Asticou. Whatever they come up with would go to the land use advisory group for its recommendation. The proposal would then to the planning board for approval, and after that the selectmen would decide if and when to send it to voters.