JAX housing needs, taxes debated

BAR HARBOR — It would help the town’s finances if housing units planned by The Jackson Laboratory (JAX) for researchers, students and employees could go on the tax rolls, councilors told JAX representatives Tuesday.

The research nonprofit’s ten-year master plan includes possibly 60-odd units of housing in one, two and three-bedroom apartments adjacent to the campus, JAX Facilities Director John Fitzpatrick told the council.

The research institute is Bar Harbor’s largest employer, with many employees making long commutes. Some of them take Downeast Transportation buses in an arrangement supported by a federal Job Access and Reverse Commute (JARC) grant.

Housing is especially difficult to find in the summer, when employees in seasonal tourist businesses arrive. Lack of housing has been a challenge for JAX recruiting efforts, Fitzpatrick said. JAX has talked to developers about the need for rental units, he said, but “they want to do vacation rentals.”

The relationship between the town and JAX is mutually beneficial, Councilor Gary Friedmann said. “I think the town wants to be a good partner. But when I see 65 units of housing, that’s millions of dollars of potentially taxable property.

“If that housing were provided by the private sector, it could go a long way toward keeping tax rates down. Maybe we could come up with some joint development strategies that would add rental units to the tax rolls.”

Fitzpatrick explained that JAX could count housing for graduate students, visiting investigators and post-doctoral scholars as mission-related and therefore tax-exempt under its nonprofit status. Housing for other employees would be taxable.

“We don’t want to be in the business of housing,” Fitzpatrick told the council. They’d prefer to have more housing units built by private developers available. “But if not, we’re prepared to pull the trigger and start solving the problem.”

Council Chair Paul Paradis said increasing the housing supply, whether taxable or not, would improve the local housing market overall. “I see this as a positive,” he said. “We have goals about building affordable housing and workforce housing. The lab is helping us create a more year-round community.”

Good information about the total number of year-round rental units in town would be helpful for planning, JAX Government Relations director LuAnn Ballesteros said. “I made some calls, and no one knew that number.”

In recent years, the nonprofit has increased its voluntary Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) to the town when it bought properties and they went off the tax rolls, she said. They also have some parcels for which they do pay property taxes.

The PILOT, which in 2015 was $83,429, has increased according to the inflation rate. JAX also pays the town for water and sewer service, to the tune of nearly $600,000.

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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