BAR HARBOR — The town’s planning department has unveiled new, draft regulations for vacation rentals.
As the town considers that proposal, which is set to go to voters in November, a moratorium on new vacation rental registrations may be imposed in order to avoid a rush of new registrations by property owners hoping to avoid the potential new rules.
When regular town business resumes after the pandemic restrictions are lifted, the Town Council may vote on a 60-day emergency moratorium on new vacation rental registrations. If the emergency action is approved, the council would then vote again, following a public hearing, on an extension of that moratorium for another 180 days.
Existing permit holders would not be affected.
A similar emergency moratorium was proposed and rejected in April of last year. Fire Chief Matt Bartlett said it has taken town staff all year to “dig out from under” the large number of new vacation rental registration applications received in the days prior to last year’s moratorium vote.
This time, a draft of the regulations is nearly complete. The idea of a moratorium was proposed at a joint workshop of the Planning Board and Town Council on Wednesday, March 11, as an alternative to making the new rules retroactive to apply to this spring and summer even though the vote won’t be held until November.
The proposal is to distinguish between two types of vacation rentals and to create a town-wide cap for one of them.
The first type (VR-I) is a rental in which a Bar Harbor resident rents out a room or apartment in the house that is their permanent residence, or a detached unit on the same lot, or the resident leaves their house for some portion of the summer (for example, moving to a campground or family camp) and rents out the whole house to visitors. These would be subject to an annual registration requirement and $250 annual fee but would not be capped and would have no minimum number of nights.
The second type (VR-II) is a whole-house rental in the case 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.
In the draft proposal, these would have a six-night minimum length of stay and the town would impose a cap of 175 on this type of vacation rental. A waiting list when the cap is exceeded would use a 3:1 entry ratio; that is, for every three licenses not renewed each year, one new one would be issued until the cap is met.
Current registered vacation rental hosts, even those who fall into the second category, would have their registrations protected and not be subject to the cap, as long as they renew annually.
The goal of the project, according to a memo from the department, is to “balance the needs of the Town of Bar Harbor and protect public interests including housing affordability, health and safety, and neighborhood quality, while still allowing for residents to earn supplemental income from vacation rentals.”
As part of preparing the proposal, the department held three listening sessions in January, at which 220 people offered comment. A zoning advisory group made up of Earl Brechlin, John Fitzpatrick, Michael Gurtler, Rob Jordan, Kristi Losquadro and Nichole Treston met seven times with town staff of discuss details of the proposal.
“What we heard was a lot of people are doing this to bring income that was needed,” Planning Director Michele Gagnon said at the Wednesday workshop. “We wanted to be quite permissive for the people who live here.”
People at the listening sessions seemed to want to distinguish between residents who use vacation rentals at their primary residence as a way to be able to afford to live here, and people buying properties as investment, Brechlin said. A home that’s used exclusively as a vacation rental is essentially a commercial use of a residential property, he said.
Currently about 12 percent of the town’s housing stock is used either intermittently or exclusively for vacation rentals, according to the planning department. Some residents are concerned that number is high enough that it may be inflating real estate prices or creating other problems for the year-round community.
Planning Board members Basil Eleftheriou and Erica Brooks argued that the goal to stem conversion of year-round housing to new vacation rentals should be balanced with the rights of property owners who have made investments under the current system.
“I’m not sure it’s equitable,” Eleftheriou said, noting that some businesses in town have new vacation rentals as part of their business plan, but could be shut out of that option if this proposal were adopted.