Dormitories debated

BAR HARBOR — At a public hearing last Wednesday, the head of one of the large hotel companies that operates here thanked the Planning Board for working on a zoning change to allow the construction of employee dormitories.

“I’ve been working with the board on this for over three years now,” said David C. Witham of Witham Family Hotels.

“The intention all along has been to get us out of neighborhoods and get us on our own site to try to restore neighborhoods to how they should be for the community.”

According to Planning Board Chair Tom St. Germain, the term “employee dormitory” constitutes housing that is on the same premises as the employer institution; “workforce dormitory” constitutes housing that is offsite but of standalone primary use; and “rooming house” creates a new definition for houses that can “contain more than five people which is more than a single-family home would be able to house for a period of time.”

Witham said some neighborhoods are looking to form partnerships with Island Housing Trust to make sure year-round residents can purchase the housing that his company is currently using for employee housing but plans to put on the market if a dormitory is constructed in the future.

“So we’re excited about that opportunity to work with them on that,” Witham said. “Maybe there needs to be some refinement and tweaks to this, but it’s going to be a benefit for many.”

Others in attendance did not feel the same way.

Atlantic Avenue resident Jim Mahoney said he believes that the downtown residential zone is not appropriate for employee housing.

“There’s a lot of stress on that zone from other uses. For example, vacation rentals. There’s been a lot of displacement of year-round housing that’s happened already,” he said.

Glen Mary Road resident Ellen Grover spoke briefly, urging the board to consider the “sustainability of the year-round population,” and Atlantic Avenue resident John Reeves voiced his concern that more housing in his neighborhood would add to the town’s traffic problems.

Donna Karlson, who serves on the Warrant Committee but stressed she was speaking as a private citizen, asked the committee about safety.

“My first concern is safety for the workers, that they be in safe spaces and have adequate places to live in terms of enough space, sanitary facilities, etc.,” she said before asking about whether there should be a provision made that such housing not be used for transient populations.

The Planning Board addressed some of these concerns before they took a vote.

“This is going to have a better effect than most people are thinking in terms of freeing up a lot more housing,” said board member Erica Brooks. “It’s not going to create more of a housing problem. It’s going to free up some of those houses on Ledgelawn and Glen Mary owned by employers who don’t want their people in there.”

Brooks also noted that the downtown residential zone contains some commercial use.

Before calling for a motion to be made, St. Germain asked Planning Director Michele Gagnon to address Karlson’s concerns about built-in prohibitions for transient populations. Reading from Article 5 of the land use ordinance (LUO), Gagnon confirmed that any such housing is prohibited from being used for vacation rentals.

After agreeing to make several changes to the language of the ordinance — including adding the final line concerning workforce dormitory usage that got cut off and changing the four instances of the word “housing” being used instead of “dormitory” — the board voted unanimously to recommend the LUO amendment to the Town Council for the November election.

Blake Cass

Blake Cass

Blake Cass

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