BAR HARBOR — A town project to update the way the town regulates vacation rentals lost some momentum this spring when most municipal meetings were canceled for several weeks due to the pandemic emergency.
Work on the plan has now resumed, and related zoning changes may go to voters in November, but some officials say the public health crisis may create long-lasting adjustments in the vacation rental industry.
The new regulatory framework proposed by the planning department would create two classes of vacation rentals in the town and a town-wide cap on one class — whole-house rentals where the property is owned by a non-Bar Harbor resident, or a Bar Harbor resident who does not use the property in question as their primary residence.
“People are really scared right now financially,” planning board member Erica Brooks said. “It’s a rough time. So the terms ‘caps’ and ‘control’ and ‘regulation’ and ‘enforcement’ — I think this is not the time to be continuing. I think we need to hold off on this whole conversation.”
“What’s happening in the market is going to affect the number of units” being used as vacation rentals, Planning Board Chair Tom St. Germain agreed.
Some property owners are deciding to switch to long-term rentals, at least for this season. But Councilor Gary Friedmann said that phenomenon isn’t likely to make a dent in the island’s affordable housing crisis.
About 12 percent of the town’s housing stock is used either intermittently or exclusively for vacation rentals, according to town data. Of the town’s current 237 vacation rental registration renewals, Code Enforcement Officer Angela Chamberlain said, only 38 indicate that the property owner lives on the property when renters are present. That number doesn’t include homeowners who move out to a campground or camp for some of the summer in order to rent out their house, she said.
Of the current registered rentals, 56 percent are registered to a Bar Harbor address, 28 percent to an out of state address and 16 percent to a Maine address outside Bar Harbor.
“I don’t believe this crisis is going to open up housing for people,” Friedmann said. “I want to speak on behalf of the people being slammed by this crisis, for whom affordable housing was a big issue before, and it’s an even bigger issue now.”
The group also discussed whether personal property tax should be assessed on furniture or equipment in a house that’s exclusively used as a vacation rental, since it’s a commercial use.
Meanwhile, a citizen initiative to exempt “hosted” rentals from the current five-night minimum will go to voters at Town Meeting elections in July.
At an April 29 meeting, planning board members Joe Cough, Basil Eleftheriou and John Fitzpatrick voted that the proposal ought not to pass. Board members Brooks and St. Germain were opposed.
“I think this is myopic and short-sighted and is going to cause those of us who are working on a holistic solution much more work to try to undo what would be done in July if this passes,” Fitzpatrick said.
Brooks said the intent of the petition was for a number of residents to be able to “continue to operate their rentals this season and be in compliance.”
Planning Director Michele Gagnon said she was grateful that the petitioners had met with her to discuss the language of the petition before gathering signatures. She said she was “not signaling approval or disapproval,” but that those meetings were “simply an effort to make sure it would work in the ordinance.”
Because town officials worried that the proposed new regulations might bring a rush of new vacation rental registrations, from owners hoping to avoid the potential cap, an emergency moratorium on new registrations was placed on a March Town Council agenda. But that was just before the pandemic emergency began, and the moratorium vote never happened. A similar emergency moratorium was proposed and rejected in April of last year.