BAR HARBOR — A zoning change that would allow a proposed downtown parking garage to move forward may come to voters in November. But officials say approving the change does not necessarily mean the garage will be built.
“The garage may never happen,” Planning Board member Basil Eleftheriou said at a joint workshop between the board and the Town Council Tuesday. “We’d be voting to put the use back in that district, not voting on a garage.”
Amendments to the town’s land use ordinance (LUO) adding “parking lot,” “parking deck” and “parking garage” as allowed uses in some districts and removing “parking garage” in others were discussed at the workshop.
The combined group agreed to split the questions about parking garages into separate warrant articles.
“I like the ability to give people a choice,” Councilor Anne Greenlee said, arguing that separating out the changes into several questions “gives additional power to voters.”
The decision was a reversal from a few months ago, when the council scrapped a group of specific proposed parking-related LUO amendments and instead directed the Planning Board to propose a single warrant article with a comprehensive recommendation for parking-related land uses throughout the town.
The Planning Board’s proposed amendment included adding “parking garage” to the list of allowed uses in five districts. It also proposed removing “parking garage” from Downtown Residential and Town Hill Business.
Adding “parking garage” in educational and research zones will be its own question. If that passes, the Jackson Laboratory will be able to build a planned garage at their campus. The other three, where “parking garage” was inadvertently removed when new districts were created in 2010, will each be a separate question.
It has been a struggle, councilors said, to separate the larger issue of parking zoning from a specific proposal being debated for the town and hotel company Ocean Properties to build a large parking garage behind the West Street Hotel.
The council and Planning Board debated whether to bring forward garages in the downtown districts this year at all.
Town Manager Cornell Knight said the Backyard Parking committee advocated not putting the question of adding “parking garage” to Downtown Village I, where the proposed project is located, on the ballot in November.
“There was concern about taxpayers being on the hook for the garage,” he said. “So their thought is to move forward with the rest of the parking program, and if the kiosks and meters generate revenue that meets the projections, then put the question on. It’s possible that, in that time, parking could improve such that there’s no need for a garage.”
“You can’t underestimate the negativity about the Backyard Parking Garage,” Martha Searchfield of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce said. She supported postponing the question for the three downtown districts. “Let JAX go first and build their garage. Going in baby steps might just be the way to go.”
Planning Board member Joe Cough spoke against postponing the questions. “To shoot this down for another date uncertain is not good planning,” he said.
Board of Appeals Chair Ellen Dohmen agreed. “To say you’re going to have a downtown business district and not allow parking makes no sense on its face.”
“We might as well not hold on to a lightning rod,” Planning Board member Tom St. Germain said of splitting the proposal into separate questions. “A majority of people want to see the parking problem solved. The rest of the proposals make a lot of headway.”
The proposal also included adding “parking lot” and “parking deck” (which can be only two stories tall) to several districts with site plan review. It allows parking facilities to be built on separate lots with the same owner, if they’re within 500 feet of each other, another change required for the proposed JAX parking garage.
Discussion of the proposed changes was tabled from the May 17 council meeting to a special workshop meeting Tuesday between the council and Planning Board.