MOUNT DESERT — The Asticou Inn property — about 16 acres at the head of the harbor in Northeast Harbor — could possibly be rezoned to allow the historic hotel to be renovated and enlarged, planning consultant Noel Musson told the town’s Land Use Zoning Advisory Group Sept. 30.
The property is currently in the Village Residential 2 and Shoreland Residential 2 zoning districts, which do not allow for hotels. Because the Asticou was rebuilt following a fire nearly 70 years before the zoning ordinance was first adopted, its use as a hotel is grandfathered. But as a “non-conforming use,” it is prohibited from expanding beyond its current footprint.
Officials of the Asti-Kim Corporation, which owns the inn, said last year that a major rehabilitation and expansion is needed if it is to remain financially viable. They said they would like to replace the 31 existing guest rooms in the inn’s main building, many of which are quite small, with about 20 larger rooms and replace the three, two-room “topsider” cottages next to the inn with several new cottages or an annex with perhaps 21 rooms.
“In its current configuration, the Asticou … is not sustainable,” Alex Kimball, Asti-Kim’s vice president and treasurer, told the Planning Board in December. “We’ve got to do something different if we’re going to keep the Asticou as a going enterprise.”
Asti-Kim officials asked the planning board if the property could be rezoned to accommodate their needs. The planning board referred them to the land use advisory group, of which Musson is a member as well as a paid consultant.
He told the group last week that, rather than changing the uses allowed in any existing zoning districts, the best solution probably would be to create a new district for the Asticou property.
That would be spot zoning, which is not always legal. But in a 1996 case involving the town of Camden, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court said spot zoning is “a neutral term encompassing both legal and illegal land use controls.”
“The fact that a zoning amendment benefits only a particular property or is adopted at the request of a particular property owner for that owner’s benefit is not determinative of whether it is an illegal spot zoning,” the court said.
Musson said he would consult with the town attorney on whether the proposed Asticou rezoning would pass legal muster.
He told the land use advisory group that, in considering the creation of a new zoning district, they should not focus just on the Asticou as it currently exists and operates.
“The first question should be, ‘How does the town feel about that area having a hotel/motel as an allowed use, regardless of who owns it?’” he said. “We should be asking ourselves if it is appropriate from a land use perspective to have a hotel/motel in that area. If so, let’s put a [zoning] code around it. It’s been there forever; it’s a historic traditional use, so I think it makes sense.”
Members of the land use advisory group at the Sept. 30 meeting agreed.
If the Asticou property is not rezoned to allow for the needed renovations and expansion, Asti-Kim officials have indicated the inn might not be able to survive.
Given that, Musson said, “There’s nothing in the town’s ordinances or rules that says the people who own that property couldn’t sell it tomorrow and sub-divide it into seven lots. Or they could sell it to somebody else who wants to do something else with it.”
The new zoning district that Musson and the advisory group are proposing would allow for future residential uses of the property as well as for a hotel.
Sometime in the near future, he said, the land use zoning group will hold a meeting to explain the proposed change to residents of the area around the Asticou and to see if they have any suggestions or concerns.
Musson said he plans to draft the proposed zoning ordinance change for the land use advisory group to consider. The group would then make a recommendation to the Planning Board, which would hold a public hearing before making a recommendation to the Board of Selectmen. If the selectmen approve, the proposed zoning ordinance change would be voted on by residents at town meeting in May.
Asti-Kim President Jim McCabe said last Friday that the zoning change is needed “so that we don’t have to rely on the existing footprint in making critical changes … replacing the topsiders, for example. Replacing them on the original footprints would not be a good idea because it’s a very inefficient use of space.
“I think the town will provide us with the flexibility we need to preserve the inn,” McCabe said.