BAR HARBOR — Town officials are calling the lack of affordable housing and year-round rentals in town a crisis. Earlier this month, the Town Council asked the planning board to begin work on zoning changes they hope will improve the situation.
The board was asked to consider three categories of changes to the town’s Land Use Ordinance (LUO): vacation rental definitions, allowing dormitories and density, which is governed by minimum lot size and minimum area-per family rules.
Any changes recommended by the Planning Board will go back to the Town Council and eventually to voters; all LUO amendments require a town vote.
Based on comments heard from the public, the council asked the Planning Board to come up with new definitions to differentiate between hosted and non-hosted vacation rentals.
Specifying that hosted vacation rentals are allowed would enable residents to rent rooms to guests in their own house. The council also asked for the minimum stay for vacation rentals to be reduced, from five nights to three.
At a Planning Board meeting on April 3, members disagreed about how and when to follow the council’s directions concerning vacation rentals.
Chair Tom St. Germain thought the tasks set by the town council were doable. “Hopefully tonight we can create a roadmap to see how we can get that done.”
As for the vacation rental issue, St. Germain said, “my takeaway from the meeting is that we can address vacation rental definition in the land use ordinance for something that can go on the ballot for November.”
Board member Erica Brooks agreed the board could work toward getting proposed changes on the November ballot.
“It’s pretty clear something needs to be done quickly,” she said. “People want to comply with the current ordinance, yet the current ordinance is outdated. We need to redefine the vacation rental ordinance, and that’s what we’ve been tasked to do.”
But Joe Cough argued that the board’s job is to enact policy that “makes sense from a planning perspective,” not to worry about whether the ordinance is being followed.
“What I heard from the Town Council is they’re looking for advice from the Planning Board,” Basil Eleftheriou said. “At the top of that list, we need a study first and foremost. We need a framework to move forward.”
He said he did not want to “put band-aids on things. Until we get that study, I’m not inclined to change the numbers [of days required for vacation rentals].”
John Fitzpatrick called reducing the vacation rental minimum to two or three days “a feel-good measure,” saying “this is not going to address housing.”
Until the board has clearer goals and objectives in place, Fitzpatrick said, “making the change right now would be very myopic. It would be harder to take it back.”
Town Planner Michele Gagnon recommended that the board consider small changes like allowing hosted vacation rentals in the land use ordinance.
“It’s all part of the sharing economy,” she said. According to the current land use ordinance people are not allowed to rent out portions of their homes. “Why aren’t we helping those people with some very simple changes?”
Gagnon added that according to data provided to the town by rental enforcement firm Host Compliance, 91 percent of vacation rentals in Bar Harbor are entire homes. The town has not yet hired Host Compliance for enforcement services, but has budgeted money to contract with that firm or a similar one for the work.
“It’s not the only impact to affordable housing,” Gagnon said, “but it is absolutely a part of the equation.”
In addition to potential changes in vacation rental definitions, the planning board has also started looking at changing density requirements “to encourage the creation of single family dwellings,” St. Germain said.
The board has also been working on allowing land use for dormitories since 2017. Fitzpatrick said the draft amendment has been “pretty much vetted” and is close to completion.
“Vacation rentals, dormitories, and densities,” St. Germain summarized. “I am going to express my confidence that we can do this.”