Planning Board and Council begin long vacation rental conversation

BAR HARBOR Despite a questionable tourist season on Mount Desert Island this summer, over 100 more vacation rental permit applications have come to the code enforcement office than last year.  

“A lot of these were people who panicked when they thought the ordinance was going to change, so they got their applications in,” Code Enforcement Officer Angela Chamberlain told members of the Town Council and Planning Board at their first joint workshop regarding vacation rentals on Sept. 9. 

Members of the Town Council opted not to put a proposal that would limit the number of vacation rentals on the ballot this November. Instead, councilors recommended the town work further on the proposal with the hope of putting an option before voters next June.  

Councilor Jill Goldthwait expressed concern at the workshop that putting the decision off until June might lead to a record number of vacation rental applications coming before the town for the 2021 season.  

“This year we have issued 32 new vacation rentals, 421 renewals and 62 pending applications,” said Chamberlain in a conversation with the Islander on Monday. “We’d only issued 398 as of August last year; that’s new and renewals.” 

Even though the number of vacation rentals surpassed 500 for this year, they all are set to expire on May 31, 2021.  

Language of the tabled proposal creates a distinction between residents who rent out some or all of their primary residence (a VR1) and those who do not live at the property being rented (a VR2). Intended to protect those who have said they need to operate a vacation rental in order to afford to live here, the rules would create a cap on the number of VR2 rentals. 

“I really think this is such an important issue, we need to get it right,” said Councilor Joe Minotolo at the joint workshop, noting the tension between the council and Planning Board regarding the issue. “If we’re going to put our heads in the sand on this issue and have these little tit for tats, we’re not going to go anywhere. We need to get something done… We all got to be invested in this thing and we need to move forward with it.” 

With several goals in mind for their session that include reducing the percentage of vacation rental properties among the town’s real estate, encouraging affordable and workforce housing and neighborhood quality, the two government bodies are slated to work on a new proposal. 

“Inevitable, as one begins to look at the details of these proposals, we get caught between what our goals are and what the reaction of people with a vested interest is,” said Goldthwait, answering Planning Board member Erika Brooks’ question about why the current proposal didn’t work. “We’re constantly juggling the reaction of our community members and we end up with a proposal that doesn’t meet our stated goal.” 

Questions regarding VR1 are based on where they should be allowed, whether the number of permits and number of nights per stay should be limited and whether they should be transferred from VR1 to VR2 and to heirs of the property owner. Some of those same questions surround the VR2 conversation, such as what zones they should be allowed in, whether the maximum number of units should be capped to a percentage of the towns number of dwelling units, if the rental period should be restricted and whether transfer of the unit can be restricted to heirs.  

“I believe that we should be rethinking this in a more far-reaching way than we may have considered,” said Planning Board Chairman Tom St. Germain during the Zoom meeting. “This came to us pre-COVID. What COVID did was really alter the housing market substantially. I would encourage both of us to consider this in a broad and extensive way, not just go back to the parameters we had a year ago.” 

Sarah Hinckley

Sarah Hinckley

Former Islander reporter Sarah Hinckley covered the towns of Southwest Harbor, Tremont and neighboring islands.

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