Size of majority needed for vacation rental amendment in question after tie vote

BAR HARBOR — The Planning Board’s tie vote on a recommendation to adopt proposed changes to the town’s vacation rental rules has led to differing interpretations of what it would take to pass the amendments at the town meeting. 

Last week, the board was charged with making recommendations on several land use ordinance amendments that are on the town meeting warrant in November, including the ones on vacation rentals. If the board recommends an amendment, it needs only a simple majority to pass at town meeting. If the Planning Board does not recommend a proposed amendment, it would need a two-thirds majority.  

At the board’s meeting on Sept. 1, the board was deadlocked on the vacation rental issue. Members Elissa Chesler and Millard Dority voted in favor, recommending adoption. Joseph Cough and Tom St. Germain voted against. Ruth Eveland, the fifth member of the board, was absent.  

After the vote, the board debated what the tie vote meant. St. Germain, the board’s chairman, felt that the board’s lack of approval meant that a two-thirds majority was required.  

“It may be that I will be proven wrong, and it may be that I’m proven right,” he said at the meeting.  

The town code states that the Planning Board shall make recommendations by a majority vote, and if it does not recommend a proposed amendment, such an amendment must be adopted by a two-thirds majority.  

The town’s attorney, Ed Bearor, pointed out that the board did not record a majority vote on the matter, as required in the town code. 

None of the members planned to budge from their opinions and there wasn’t time to table the vote until another meeting to wait for Eveland due to time constraints with the warrant.  

While St. Germain was in the two-thirds camp, Town Manager Cornell Knight thought that since the board did not make a majority vote as required by the town’s ordinances, only a majority vote would be required at town meeting.  

“We hopefully will have a legal opinion done before the vote,” Knight wrote in an email.  

At the Town Council meeting on Tuesday, council member Matthew Hochman brought up potential legal issues and wondered if the article should be pulled from the warrant. He requested that the council talk about the Planning Board’s vote at a future meeting.  

“I think that the inaction of the Planning Board really muddied the waters for this and creates legal ambiguity,” he said. 

The new vacation rental regulations would put rentals, such as Airbnbs, into two categories. Rentals that are the owner’s primary residence would be classified as VR-1s and rental properties that aren’t would be designated VR-2s.  

VR-1s would have a two-night stay minimum and VR-2s would have a four-night minimum. An owner would not be allowed to have more than two VR-1s in their primary residence.  

There is currently no distinction between rentals, and all are required to have four-night stays.  

The most contentious piece of the regulations has to do with the potential transferability of a vacation rental.  

Under the new proposal, the total number of VR-2s would be capped at 9 percent of the total number of dwelling units in town, and the transfer of any vacation rental registration would be prohibited.  

That has scared many VR-2 owners, who fear that if the cap is met, they would be unable to sell or pass down their home as a rental in the future. The issue has been debated at several public meetings leading up to the Planning Board vote.  

Anyone who owns an existing vacation rental would be able to continue operating as long as the registration was renewed annually. VR-1s would be allowed in all 34 districts they are currently allowed in, and new VR-2s would be limited to districts zoned for commercial and lodging.  

The Warrant Committee recommended the amendments, though committee members who own vacation rentals had to recuse themselves from the vote.  

Ethan Genter

Ethan Genter

Former reporter for the Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander, Ethan covered maritime news and the town of Bar Harbor.

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