BAR HARBOR — The town’s voters will decide in November whether to impose limits on vacation rentals under a plan that’s been in development all year.
The Town Council voted Tuesday to move the proposal forward, with two major changes from the version presented by the Planning Board. The category of non-hosted rentals in homes above a certain price, VR3, was eliminated. And the council removed the provision that un–hosted rental licenses, VR2s, are transferable when a property is sold, except when a summer home is passed down or sold within a family.
The vote was 6-1, with Councilor Erin Cough casting the dissenting vote.
In the discussion, councilors said they worried the plan had been “diluted” in response to the public comment received, so much so that it may no longer meet the policy objectives.
Those objectives include “to establish clear definitions, appropriate locations and minimum length of stay”; “to address speculation and conversion from year-round housing to short-term lodging”; and “to develop regulations that are politically acceptable, legally and practically enforceable and financially affordable.”
“This is obviously a very polarizing issue,” Planning Director Michele Gagnon told the council, noting the last Planning Board vote was 3-2. “I agree it does not necessarily meet the policy objectives, but if we were not going to be open to certain ‘dilutions’ it wasn’t going to go anywhere.”
Cough argued that the plan doesn’t do enough to specify whether vacation rentals are a residential or commercial use, and creates few limits on which zoning districts should allow them.
Councilor Gary Friedmann argued that the proposal does meet a number of the objectives, saying it’s urgent to stem the conversion of houses to vacation rentals as soon as possible. He said he estimates the town is “losing” about one house a month to such conversions.
Gagnon said 10 people commented at the July 8 Planning Board public hearing and an additional 11 written comments were received by the town, including some sent to the town manager.
Resident Elissa Chesler, a researcher at The Jackson Laboratory, submitted comment, saying she was not speaking for her employer. “I do speak for myself as someone who depends professionally on the ability to attract young staff to the area, and the lack of lower cost year-round housing diminishes my ability to do so.”
“I do not believe that (VR2) licenses should be transferable with the property, as this would make it challenging to effectively increase the number of year–round residential homes.”
She said she was concerned that Planning Board members “represented and advocated around a narrow set of concerns in the discussion of these issues,” and hopes “that a greater balance of needs across the community” can be reflected in future work.
Councilor Matt Hochman said he was troubled by emails he received from some residents asking the council not to put the proposal on the ballot, saying the plan has “overwhelming opposition.”
Since very high voter turnout is expected in November, Hochman said, “if that’s true, it will fail at the ballot.”