BAR HARBOR — A draft proposal to add new forms of dormitory-style housing as allowed uses in the Land Use Ordinance was discussed at a public information session last Wednesday.
Town Planner Michele Gagnon hosted the public information session to present the proposal in its current state, and solicit feedback.
After this session, the draft will be further reviewed by the Planning Board and the Town Council. A final draft proposal will likely go before voters in June 2020.
Gagnon got plenty of feedback from the roomful of residents and one large employer at last week’s meeting.
In the proposal, Employee Living Quarters (ELQ) 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 accomodation of employees.” ELQs are to be an accessory use to a principal structure, such as a hotel or other business, to house that business’s own employees.
Shared Accommodations (SAs) 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 draft proposal states. This sets it aside from a shared house that occupants decide to rent together, Gagnon explained.
The draft proposal distinguishes three types of SAs according to size. SA-1 can house up to 9 people, SA- 2 can house up to 32 people and SA-3 can house 33 or more people. The larger SA-2 and SA-3s would not be allowed in residential or rural districts.
Both ELQs (dormitories) and SAs (shared accomodations) would require annual inspections, property maintenance, trash removal, linen service and pest control. Additionally, SAs would require an on-site manager and minimum parking requirements.
The draft proposal states that new ELQs would require a major site plan application before the Planning Board. SAs would require a major site plan application only if they are large (SA-2 or 3). Small SA-1s or converted buildings would require a minor site plan, which does not involve Planning Board review.
Downtown resident Josh Ehrlich said he understood how allowing ELQs could help the year-round housing stock, but did not think allowing SAs would help.
“How does that not compete with the single families that we want to go into those houses?” he said. “That directly competes. It does not seem to support the purpose of what you’re trying to do.”
Gagnon said more people could live in these boarding houses than just the five people currently allowed in a single family home. “That creates the need to have less homes,” she said.
Downtown resident Rob Jordan pointed out that SAs could help small employers. “My concern is the people that are doing ELQs have the resources. Small employers don’t have the resources to build a dormitory on their property.”
He said he would like to see the SA idea continue to be explored, because if not, “people are still going to be doing it, but it won’t be licensed.”
Atlantic Avenue resident Doug Heden commented that he would like to see SA-1s go through a major site plan application. “I’d want a public hearing, not just planner approval,” he said.
Ash Street resident Mary Galperin asked if allowing ELQs and SAs would result in “adding lots of employee housing to what’s already in the town.”
Gagnon said that hundreds of employees already housed in Bar Harbor in employer-owned “houses [that are] off the market.”
The goal of allowing ELQs and boarding houses, she said, would be to allow employers to create employee housing in the hopes “that will incentivize them to release some housing.”
“Or maybe [that will] add some more employee housing to the town,” said Galperin. “It could go the other way. Maybe there will be more hotels. Maybe we should subtract something to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Resident Liz Kase asked what was to stop single family homes from being purchased for other purposes if at some point they’re no longer needed for employee housing.
“It’s not the cart before the horse,” Kase said, “but if there aren’t regulations in place, what’s to guarantee there will be a single family home there? What are you doing to regulate that?”
Gagnon answered that the planning department planned to meet with organizations such as Island Housing Trust and Bar Harbor Housing Authority down the road, “but time and staff are hurtles, and we can only do so much,” she said. “What we talked about was to leave this to the side for the moment, and get back to it.”
Kennebec Street resident Adele Obolafia said the concentration of employee housing downtown is already high, pointing out that the old Rainwise building on Federal Street now “houses 40 people. Do you have a percentage of houses that have been bought up by hoteliers, and what more housing do they need?” she asked Gagnon.
Gagnon answered that the planning department “tried to start quantifying that number, and we stopped when we couldn’t do it precisely. So we don’t know the number of homes.”
Gagnon went on to say that hotel company “Ocean Properties has 320 seasonal employees that they are housing,” and that they have “more sites than were documented.”
Gagnon said there are 75 seasonal employees housed in the former Ledgelawn Inn, and some in the newly refurbished apartments on West Street Extension. “They’re everywhere,” she said.
Downtown resident Margaret Jeffery also said she would like to know “how many [seasonal] employees are housed in Bar Harbor” compared to “how many are housed outside of Bar Harbor.”
“Are we just going to increase the number of migrant workers downtown and increase density?” she asked.
“We don’t want to be in these neighborhoods because of the cost of housing,” said hotelier David Witham. “[But] walk-ability is very important.” Employees with H2B work visas, Gagnon pointed out, arrive from other countries without vehicles.
“We wish we were never at this point, but it’s the labor market we’re in now,” Witham continued. “You have to pull people from off the island if you want to stay in business. Up and down the coast of Maine, some businesses are locking the door because they just can’t do it anymore.”
Allowing his company to build dormitories or ELQs would free up houses, Witham said. “I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve had several meetings with the Island Housing Trust about putting houses back on the market below market value so these houses go to [year-round families].”
Audience members asked Witham if there was any way to build employee housing “further from downtown,” using busses as transportation to and from work.
“Obviously we have looked into that,” Witham said. He cited the cost of transportation and a shortage of bus drivers as challenges. “The idea is if we can get [employees] on our own site, I don’t think that has a negative impact on the town.”
Resident Donna Karlson commented, “It’s good that we’re doing something, but really what’s happening is … our year-round community is disappearing. I know this community welcomes and appreciates everyone who comes here to work. But affordable housing is disappearing. I just don’t want to lose my town.”
“We do have a huge need for affordable housing in general,” said Planning Board member Erika Brooks. “We have to find a balance, and I think the work that the planning department has done is huge.
“This is not unloading some crazy thing,” she continued. With proposed licensing and inspection requirements, she said, “it actually seems to me that it’s getting more strict.”