BAR HARBOR — The Bar Harbor Planning Board has tabled a public hearing to allow for continued discussion of a Town Council-initiated proposal that seeks to strip the Planning Board of its ability to force a two-thirds majority vote at town meeting on land use issues it does not recommend.
The hearing will continue at the board’s Feb. 2 meeting after members voted 4-2 (Elissa Chesler and Ruth Eveland), with those voting in the affirmative citing the desire to speak in person rather than across the conferencing platform Zoom. There was only one resident who spoke to the initiative during the virtual hearing. That resident supported the continuation of the supermajority.
The move to push the hearing into February has the potential to keep the question off the town meeting ballot in June. In an explanation to the Planning Board during the meeting, Town Planner Michele Gagnon told the board that there was no action required of the Planning Board and no vote to be taken. She said that the Planning Board’s job was to hold the public hearing and that the council was preparing to take the next steps at its Jan. 18 meeting to place it on the June warrant.
The origins of the two-thirds vote requirement remains a mystery. Found in town records as having been enacted at the 1975 town meeting, there is no discussion in newspaper reports from the time. A scan of Bar Harbor Times issues by the Islander before and through town meeting in 1975, as well as issues from 1974 and 1976, yielded no additional information about the vote or the thinking that led to the placement of the question on the local ballot. Planning Board member Ruth Eveland also said she reviewed past issues of the Times but found no information relevant to the vote.
A majority of board members questioned why the council was taking this action now, suggesting that is it directly tied to the disagreements that occurred between the Planning Board and Town Council over vacation rentals during the last town meeting cycle. They said that approaching the change from a reactionary position was not in the best interest of the townspeople.
Most notably, members of the Planning Board and council disagreed on the idea of transferability (the idea that a vacation rental license would continue with the property when sold).
Transferability exists as part of the town’s land use ordinance and changes would need to make their way through the Planning Board, which includes a recommendation by the board for the town meeting warrant. Ahead of last town meeting, board members and council members clashed over the issue. A majority of the Planning Board was in favor of continued transferability and the council was seeking to end the practice. Further deepening the divide, the Planning Board ended in a 2-2 tie vote when it took up the recommendation of the warrant article, which led to different interpretations of what that tied vote meant.
According to the town’s attorney, the tied vote meant only a simple majority vote of the townspeople was needed to enact the change. The vote to end transferability garnered 60 percent of the vote, just shy of a two-thirds majority, and has since been removed from the town’s code. Bar Harbor resident and real estate agent Erica Brooks, disagreeing with that interpretation, recently filed a lawsuit against the town asking for the court to rule definitively on what a tie vote means. That case is still working its way through the court.
The Planning Board will reconvene the hearing at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 2.