Resident Amber Wolf described the challenges faced by college students and year-round renters in Bar Harbor trying to find a place to live Tuesday at a listening session hosted by the town Planning and Code Department. ISLANDER PHOTO BY LIZ GRAVES

Vacation rental hosts, skeptics have their say

BAR HARBOR — Residents who host vacation rentals pled with town officials Tuesday not to lay all the blame for the town’s housing crisis at their feet. The event at the MDI Biological Laboratory was the first of three planned listening sessions this week about balancing year-round housing and vacation rentals hosted by the town’s Planning Department.

The town currently has about 3,505 housing units, Town Planner Michele Gagnon told the group in an opening presentation, and 438 registered vacation rentals. That’s 12.5 percent of the housing stock.

Between 2010 and 2016, according to census and American Community Survey data compiled by the department, 156 year-round rental units were lost in the Bar Harbor census designated place, an area that’s smaller than the town limits but includes the downtown.

The department is at work developing proposed restrictions on vacation rentals and ways to enforce them. The purpose of the project, according to a Housing Policy Framework, is to “curtail the conversion of year-round housing to vacation rentals” and “retain neighborhood integrity by ensuring that residential neighborhoods do not become lodging zones.”

“Is a vacation rental a residential or commercial use?” Gagnon asked. “That’s a big philosophical debate, and we’re not here to answer it tonight, but I am here to throw it out [for discussion].”

“It’s easy to think that if a vacation rental disappears, it’ll suddenly become a year-round rent, but that’s never going to happen,” said Eric Davis, who said he lives both in Bar Harbor and in Southwest Harbor. “Property values are just too darn high.”

He said he has about 12 employees, and all but one live off-island because they don’t want to “waste” their income on Mount Desert Island housing prices. The one who does live here hosts vacation rentals to supplement his income. “It’s not a tool, it is the tool for the common man to own property here,” he said. He said year-round residents have been renting their houses to visitors “since the 1800s.”

If new limitations are imposed, Davis said, he hopes existing rentals can be grandfathered. Otherwise, he said, “it could crush me.”

Another source of pressure on housing availability, several commenters said, is employee housing for seasonal employers. Resident Vicki Smith-Fernald, who said she has been listing her house on Airbnb for eight years, responded to the idea that visitors moving in and out every week at a vacation rental this way: “If they had a house full of summer workers they’d love to have renters instead.”

Sarah Mays, who said she and her husband have built what they hope will be their retirement home here, noted that elsewhere in the country when a neighborhood becomes predominantly vacation rentals, around 80 percent, property values have started to go down.

Resident David Bowden, who owns a motel and cottage business near the MDI Biological Laboratory, said some “mom and pop businesses” are at a disadvantage in zoning: many became nonconforming when zoning changed decades ago, which limited the businesses’ ability to grow or make improvements. Most vacation rentals, since they’re private residences, are not restricted in that way. He argued against reducing the five-night minimum: “Two-day is not a vacation rental, that’s transient accommodations.”

Resident Sarah O’Connell said the listening sessions are offering a chance for vacation rental hosts to gather and discuss their needs and challenges, many for the first time. Unlike hotels or other stakeholder groups, she said, “we don’t have a united voice.”

Resident Amber Wolf, who said she works at the Biological Laboratory, said many College of the Atlantic students and other renters only have access to winter rentals after the vacation rental season ends, several weeks after the school year begins.

She suggested the town move away from expanding shoulder season tourism, and many in the group laughed.

“It’s funny for you, but it’s not funny for people like me,” she said. “It’s really scary and really stressful. I know there are places in town that get rented that are definitely illegal, but because people like me are so desperate for places to live they end up in them.”

She also said some landlords only list year-round rentals on internal lists at The Jackson Laboratory, which has the effect of freezing out anyone who doesn’t work there.

In November, voters approved a change in the definition of “vacation rental” in the town’s land use ordinance to include a “portion of” a dwelling unit, making it legal to rent out single rooms. But the minimum stay remains five days, which Gagnon said the department interprets as four nights.

A citizen initiative to change the five-night minimum stay for hosts renting out their primary residence (a property for which they qualify for a homestead property tax exemption) is in the works, resident Earl Brechlin told the group, and is set to appear on the June town meeting ballot. “Enforcement starts this summer,” he said, “and you can’t ask the council not to enforce the law.”

This month, Code Enforcement Officer Angela Chamberlain has sent several Notices of Violation to property owners who are advertising their rentals despite having failed inspections as part of the vacation rental registration process.

Commenters were divided on the Town Council’s December 2018 decision to increase the vacation rental fee, which used to be a one-time fee of $50 and is now an annual fee of $250. Some said that was higher than necessary and it wasn’t clear what the town would be doing with that money; others called it “a drop in the bucket” compared with the estimated $12.4 million income from vacation rentals in town in the first eight months of 2019 (according to AirDNA).


Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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