Council to decide whether to send rental rules to voters

BAR HARBOR — The Town Council is set to consider the proposed new framework for regulating and limiting vacation rentals following a split 3-2 vote at the Planning Board last Wednesday. Board members Tom St. Germain, Basil Eleftheriou and John Fitzpatrick supported moving the proposal forward and members Erica Brooks and Joe Cough were opposed.

Brooks has opposed the plan and argued that the current pandemic is the wrong time to impose restrictions. One category of rentals, VR-2 (not at the property owner’s primary residence), would be subject to a town-wide cap, 7.5 percent of the total housing units in the town. Anyone without a license when the rules go into effect would be subject to a waiting list.

“It’s not fair to people who are possibly in a (financial) hardship to force them to get a VR-2 (license) to protect themselves,” Brooks said.

Others argued there’s never going to be a good time to make the change, but that it is in the best interest of the town.

“It’s a hard nut to swallow, but there has been a lot of work put into this,” Eleftheriou said. St. Germain agreed, saying the board shouldn’t “short-circuit the process” by rejecting the proposal at this stage.

If the council decides to put the changes on the ballot for November elections, the changes to the definitions and rules in the land use ordinance (LUO) will be reviewed by the Warrant Committee and have more public hearings at the Planning Board and Town Council.

“The process from here on is intensive,” Planning Director Michele Gagnon said. “The Warrant Committee will put this through its paces.”

St. Germain pointed out that the board takes another vote before the election, a recommendation to voters that gets printed on the ballot. If the board recommends rejection at that point, the change would need a two-thirds majority of votes to pass.

Weighing in at the public hearing were property owners worried about loss of value of their homes and some whose applications for vacation rental licenses are pending.

The town currently has about 60 pending applications, Code Enforcement Officer Angela Chamberlain said. “Some have been there since the beginning of last year. We have to draw the line somewhere.”

“The animals, so to speak, have been let out of the barn,” said resident Sean Sweeney. The proposal creates “two classes of homes,” he said, those with vacation rental licenses and those without. “The sale value differential between the two is significant. You’re asking every citizen to give up some of their wealth. Realtors say it will cost everyone who didn’t join the weekly rental bandwagon a great deal of money.”

Fitzpatrick cited research indicating that as Airbnb rental units in a town increase, the number of available long-term rental units drops. He opposed the transferability of VR-2 licenses, saying it would take decades for the number of licenses to drop below the desired threshold through attrition.

He agreed that work to address housing needs to continue on other fronts, but said this move is necessary and will only continue to get more difficult.

“The solution is going to be made up of a dozen different actions,” he said. “From a planning standpoint, I’d love to have these rules in place before we create the opportunity to create more dwelling units … rather than having to claw (them) back” after they’re built.

Like the Employee Living Quarters and Shared Accommodations changes on the July ballot, this plan includes both land use ordinance amendments and amendments to another ordinance, Chapter 190, in the municipal code.

The former will go to voters in November if the council agrees they should. The changes to the other ordinance can be made by a council vote, following a public hearing. If the council approves the Chapter 190 changes, that approval would be contingent on voter approval of the LUO change. Board members felt the VR-2 cap is a big enough policy decision that it needed to be included in the LUO language for voters to decide, not in Chapter 190.

Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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