BAR HARBOR — Loosening outdated land use restrictions would help relieve the chronic and worsening problem of not enough affordable workforce housing on Mount Desert Island, according to Mount Desert Town Manager Durlin Lunt.
“One of the real killers of affordable housing, I think, is our zoning ordinances,” he said at the Nov. 22 meeting of the Acadia-area League of Towns board here.
He noted that in some areas of Mount Desert, the town’s zoning ordinance requires that homes be built on lots of at least five acres.
“When that was passed in the ‘70s, the concern seemed to be about sprawl and overdevelopment,” Lunt said. “That issue is no longer there, but the zoning still reflects that.”
The minimum lot size is five acres in the Shoreland Residential 5 (SR5) zoning district. That district includes much of the east and north sides of Long Pond and Round Pond, the west side of Echo Lake, the upper eastern side of Somes Sound and the upper eastern side of Cooksey Drive.
The SR3 zone has a minimum lot size of three acres. That zone includes parts of the eastern, western and northern shores of Somes Sound, all of the land around Somes Pond and Little Round Pond, and much of the Pretty Marsh and Indian Point Road areas of Mount Desert.
Lunt said there have been proposals in the past to loosen some of the acreage restrictions.
“But one of the issues we ran up against was that the people who own land in the five-acre districts like it just the way it is,” he said. “We got quite a bit of blow-back when we proposed dropping it back to an acre or so. But if you could ever overcome that obstacle, right away the costs would go down substantially.”
Lunt said he wasn’t sure how to accomplish that because of the opposition that proposed zoning changes likely would encounter.
“But that’s an issue that we really seriously need to tackle, because five-acre zoning in some of those areas just doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “It makes sense if you’re living there and like your quiet neighborhood. But it doesn’t make sense if you’re going to try to repopulate the community.”
Ted Koffman, president of the board of the Island Housing Trust, told the League of Towns board that his organization wants to start talking with the leaders of businesses and other organizations on the island about working together to address the workforce housing shortage. He said he is eager to learn more about the plans of the new, privately financed group called the Mount Desert Economic Sustainability Initiative, which has said it wants to develop “affordable housing and mortgage assistance programs.”
Koffman said Island Housing Trust hopes soon to acquire a piece of property where it could build up to 20 workforce homes. He declined to say how large the parcel is or where on Mount Desert Island it is located.
Island Housing Trust is funded by private donations and foundation grants. Over the past decade, Koffman said, “We have helped provide 32 homes on Mount Desert Island to people who are employed here and live here year-round. We provide three to five houses each year, depending on how fundraising is going.”
But at that rate, Koffman said, his organization is able to make little more than a dent in the affordable housing problem.
“This needs to be a collaboration,” he said. “There are all sorts of devices that other communities have invented, including … allowing smaller lots, infill development and auxiliary apartments or housing on a lot. We need to come together and talk about those tools and how they can be applied in our communities.
“The more we can get people to be able to live on the island and have their kids go to school here, the better.”