Public debates employee housing

BAR HARBOR — Public hearings on proposals to allow Employee Living Quarters (ELQs) and Shared Accommodations (SAs) once again drew a crowd at a Planning Board meeting Jan. 8.

After hearing comments, the Planning Board voted to recommend amendments to the Land Use Ordinance (LUO) that would allow both types of housing in certain zones.

The proposed amendments will next go to Town Council for additional public hearings before the council votes whether or not to place them on the ballot in June 2020.

As proposed, Employee Living Quarters are “a series of rooms containing beds, where the occupants do not constitute a family or single housekeeping unit” intended to be used “exclusively for the accommodation of employees.” They are to be an accessory use to a principal commercial structure to house that business’s own employees. Employees may work “on- or off-site” as long as they are “employed by the same company.” In other words, a large employer who owns multiple businesses may construct an ELQ at one of them to house employees.

Shared Accommodations are furnished rooms with shared kitchens for rent for periods of more than 30 days. Also intended for seasonal employees, “the makeup of the occupants is determined by the landlord, property manager, or other third party,” the proposal states. This, Town Planner Michele Gagnon explained in a previous meeting, sets it apart from a shared house that occupants decide to rent together.

The amendments, if approved, would allow these uses under the LUO, but neither exist yet in Bar Harbor, which was not clear to everyone at the public hearing.

Glen Mary Road resident Janice Lough asked if the employee housing on her street were ELQs or SAs and was told by the Planning Board they were neither, since neither use was allowed yet.

Currently in Bar Harbor, employee housing is made up of apartments and single-family homes rented out to seasonal workers. The LUO currently allows up to five unrelated people to live together in one dwelling unit.

“I’m concerned not just for employee quarters, but seasonal rentals. That’s what my frustration was,” said Lough, who described her street as “one of the last residential neighborhoods.”

Resident and Architect Stewart Brecher called the ELQ proposal “a reasonably good idea,” but said he was concerned about the “standards of accommodation for employees. Employees are people too, and I don’t believe there are any standards related to that for kitchen space or toilet facilities.”

Planning Board Chairman Tom St. Germain answered that standards were required through a licensing process. Brecher asked in that case if the standards should align with state standards. “That’s been a struggle for me over the years,” he said, “that the state has names for things and definitions for things. And then we invent new names and new definitions.”

Resident Donna Karlson voiced her opposition to “ELQs being allowed in any district that is residential. I heard loudly and clearly from people in the residential zones: they do not want seasonal-type housing in their neighborhoods.”

Planning Board member Joe Cough pointed out, “Some neighborhoods were business before they were residential. It would be impossible to go back and penalize those [businesses] that had been there before our ordinance came into play.”

St. Germain commented, “In a global sense, I wanted to make the point that ELQ is essentially a residential use. So, it should be expected that residential uses could end up in a residential district. Essentially ELQs are residential uses that aren’t families… but are employees.”

“What I’m hearing and I feel is an incredible frustration by the year-round population finding that their community is being eroded as a place to live,” Brecher said, “and that it becomes easier and easier for seasonal employees to get housing in the end at the expense of the year-round residents.”

Brecher continued that there needs to be a “parallel effort by the town” to increase the availability of affordable year-round housing “for this discussion to become more peaceful.”

St. Germain said that adding ELQs and SAs as an allowed use to house seasonal workers was “the first of ten” steps to increase housing in Bar Harbor. “I believe that your message is being addressed … this is one of the steps toward that.”

Hotelier David Witham commented, “I wanted to get out of the neighborhoods where we’re housing employees. That’s why I planted this seed almost four years ago. We want to get out of the neighborhoods, but we need some place to go.

“So, this notion that [this proposal is] just for the businesses … I don’t agree with that at all. I think the reasoning and the drive behind this could in the end be a win-win for everyone. Hopefully we can get out of neighborhoods where we’re not wanted, and get on our site, and we need the ELQs to do that.”

“This is not going to be a silver bullet, by any accounts,” said Planning Board member John Fitzpatrick. “It’s one bite of the elephant, and it’s going to take a lot more bites to … reverse the course of the deterioration of our community. But we’ve got to start somewhere.”

Fitzpatrick continued, “This may not revert any housing back to the residential market, but it may prevent some of the ones that are currently being lived in year-round from going the other direction. We’ve got to take some steps, and this is the first affirmative step that I think we’ve taken that has the possibility to make a positive change.”

Three other proposed LUO amendments were also voted forward, after little or no comment from the public. These included replacing the term “Municipal Tax Assessor” with “Addressing Officer,” streamlining the approval process for new multifamily structures, and revising the boundary and allowed use in the Hulls Cove Shoreland General Development II district.



Becky Pritchard
Former Islander reporter Becky Pritchard covered the town of Bar Harbor and was a park ranger in Acadia for six seasons.
Becky Pritchard

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