BAR HARBOR — Town officials say they’re working to “fast-track” policy changes aimed at making more year-round housing available, specifically housing that’s affordable for people who work in Bar Harbor.
Town Planner Michele Gagnon said her department and the Town Council are working together toward that goal, which was discussed at a workshop meeting of the council Monday.
Though no action was taken in the workshop, councilors voiced support for the 10 strategies Gagnon outlined to achieve the goal of increasing year-round housing availability.
The first strategy is to “curtail the conversion of year-round housing to short-term rentals,” and “support increased enforcement” of short-term rentals through zoning and policy changes. According to Gagnon, this will “retain neighborhood integrity by ensuring that residential neighborhoods do not become lodging zones.”
The second strategy is to develop zoning for dormitory-style housing for seasonal employees. This is “part of the larger picture” when it comes to increasing year-round housing, Gagnon explained.
“It’s clear that people want to know how this is going to fit into our overall housing vision,” Gagnon said. “[Residents] don’t want it to just be a benefit to the employers.”
These first two strategies, Gagnon told councilors in the workshop, would be done by the Planning Department in conjunction with the Planning Board and a newly formed ad hoc Zoning Advisory Committee (ZAC).
The advisory committee was formed after the Town Council rejected, in July, a zoning change allowing dormitories in some downtown districts. Despite the no vote, Gagnon said the move to allow dormitories is making progress, and the ordinance amendment is currently being revised with the help of the ZAC.
Allowing dormitories to be built would give employers an alternative to buying residential homes to house seasonal employees, according to David Witham of Witham Family Hotels.
“Our company is part of the problem, we acknowledge that, and want to be part of the solution,” Witham wrote to councilors in a Sept. 6 letter. “But we need somewhere to go, and that’s why I first reached out to the Planning Department and Planning Board three and a half years ago to plant the seed on the idea of dormitory style housing for seasonal employees.”
Strategies three and four have to do with assessing housing needs and identifying zoning barriers to affordable housing development. Gagnon said she hopes her department can hire an outside consultant on these assessments.
Strategies five through seven address the creation of low and middle income (LMI) housing or workforce housing, both through zoning changes and by forming partnerships with community organizations and employers.
Gagnon explained to councilors that LMI or workforce housing does not always mean housing that is subsidized. Workforce housing, she said, refers to house prices that are affordable to middle income people working on Mount Desert Island, such as firefighters or teachers.
Strategy eight is to work on transferring ownership of a 50-acre Town Hill parcel that’s currently part of Acadia National Park to the town, a task assigned to the Town Manager. This plan is in the very early stages, but town officials have discussed the parcel as a possible site for future workforce housing.
Strategy nine is to maintain and improve the quality of rental housing by developing an inspection ordinance and working with partners to help landlords keep their properties up to standard.
The final strategy is to “reduce red tape” in the Planning Department, by simplifying the approval process, to save housing developers time and expense. Involving the Design Review Board, the Fire Department, and the Planning Board, Gagnon said she aims to simultaneously streamline the process, “while providing for more meaningful input.”
Town Manager Cornell Knight said at the workshop that the next step is for the Town Council to approve the ten-strategy plan at a future meeting, after Gagnon adds a timeline.
Before the workshop ended, Councilor Erin Cough polled fellow councilors to make sure all were in consensus that there was a “housing crisis” to be addressed.
“I believe we have a zoning crisis,” Councilor Stephen Coston answered, noting that he recently bought a house in Bar Harbor.
Councilor Joe Minutolo said he has seen families move off the island for lack of housing.
“Where are these families that have lived here for generations?” he asked. “Where are they going to go? I think our community deserves help.”
Councilor Judy Noonan said, “We need to have places that the people who make the wheels turn in this community can afford to live in. I think right now we’re out of balance … and we’re losing our sense of community.”
Agreeing with Coston that “zoning is a big part of it,” Noonan added, “It isn’t just about buying houses: some people want to rent. We should make that available to them.”
Zoning Advisory Committee
Created by the Town Council to advise the Planning Board on making proposals for changes to the Land Use Ordinance, the seven-member ad hoc Zoning Advisory Committee has met twice and held one public listening session.
The ZAC is composed Tom St. Germain, resident, business owner and Planning Board representative; Misha Mytar, resident and project manager with Maine Coast Heritage Trust, Kevin DesVeaux, resident and business owner; and Lilea Simis, resident and business owner.
Three town staff members also sit on the ad hoc committee: Town Planner Michele Gagnon, Code Enforcement Officer Angela Chamberlain, and Assistant Planner Steve Fuller.
The committee meets behind closed doors, Gagnon said.
Questions about whether the group is subject to state open meeting laws were not answered by press time, but Town Manager Cornell Knight said in an email that the ZAC is not a standing committee, and its members may change over time.
“This is a small group of people organized by the Planning Director to assist staff with the development of specific ordinance amendments,” Knight wrote. “Their function will cease when the recommendation is made to the Planning Board.”
Last week, the advisory committee held a public listening session on the question of dormitories, and 57 people were in attendance, according to Gagnon.
“People appreciated having the opportunity to be heard,” she said.
Taking public input, the ZAC will discuss proposals to bring to the Panning Board. “It’s not to replace the Planning Board,” said Gagnon, “but to come up with ideas that are further along” to recommend to the board.
Gagnon is hoping the committee will have recommendations ready to present to the Planning Board at its Oct. 2 meeting.
The next public information session is scheduled for Nov. 13 at 6:30 p.m. in the council chambers.