Vacation rental change to go to voters Nov. 5

BAR HARBOR — Changes to the town’s land use ordinance expanding the definition of vacation rental and changes to the site plan review process will be on the ballot in a town election Nov. 5.

Residents will also have a chance to share their views on the proposed changes at a public hearing at the next Town Council meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 15.

The first proposed amendment, Article 2, would change the definition of “vacation rental” in the land use ordinance (LUO), to include portions of a dwelling unit. This would allow people to rent rooms in their house, something many homeowners already do in violation of the current ordinance.

The other proposed amendment, Article 3, involves the processing of site plan applications by the Planning Board. It is described on the ballot as an effort to “streamline the processing of applications.”

Both proposed amendments are recommended by the Planning Board and Warrant Committee. Article 2 is recommended unanimously by the 5-member Planning Board and 16-1 by the 22-member Warrant Committee. Article 3 is recommended unanimously by both groups.

The definition of “Vacation Rental” currently reads: “The use of a dwelling unit for rent to a family for a period of less than 30 days and a minimum of five days.” In May, the Planning Board proposed changing the definition to include the words “… dwelling unit or portion thereof for rent …”

This proposed change, allowing residents to rent portions of their homes, was recommended by Town Council following a series of public hearings and public comment periods held throughout the winter.

At a February public hearing, residents said some people rent as a side business to make ends meet.

At a public comment period at a joint Planning Board and Town Council workshop in February, some residents spoke openly about breaking the current ordinance unwittingly. “I’m one of the outlaw people who rent a room in my house, so I’m one hundred percent illegal right now,” said Julia Thomas. “I wasn’t aware of the rules.”

Thomas went on to say that renting a room short-term has allowed her to own a house in Bar Harbor on a single income.

Though many present asked for a change to decrease the minimum number of nights in the vacation rental definition from five to three, this was not taken up by the Planning Board.

“As harsh as this may sound, [people] not following the ordinance is not our issue,” board member Joe Cough said. “Our issue is: does it make sense from a planning perspective to change it?”

The board was more receptive to the change allowing residents to rent out a portion of their homes, voting 5-0 in favor of recommending that change to the council.

Article 3 is a proposal to change how site plans are reviewed. The changes relax the timeline required for filing applications, notices, and notifications by the Planning Board.

For example, under proposed changes, the Planning Board would no longer be required to notify an applicant in writing within 10 days if their application is found incomplete.

According to Town Planner Michele Gagnon, that requirement places an administrative burden on the Planning Department to compile minutes from a meeting and write to applicants in a short time, when the applicants usually were present at the meeting and already have the information.

Other proposed changes are meant to help applicants meet deadlines. For example, applicants are now required to meet with the Planning Department “at least seven business days prior to submitting a formal application.” Under proposed changes, applicants still need to meet with the Planning Department, but the seven business day-requirement is stricken.

“We’re simplifying the process,” Gagnon said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained an error. The public hearing on these zoning changes is set for the Oct. 15 Town Council meeting. The Islander apologizes for the error.

Becky Pritchard
Former Islander reporter Becky Pritchard covered the town of Bar Harbor and was a park ranger in Acadia for six seasons.
Becky Pritchard

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