BAR HARBOR — A discussion about rules for local property owners renting their homes, or parts of their homes, to vacationers again drew a standing-room only crowd at Tuesday’s meeting of the Town Council.
“I’ve had more conversations with people about this issue than about any other since I’ve been on council for seven years,” said Gary Friedman, the chair of the council, after the discussion. He said it was “an eye opener” to hear from residents that vacation rentals don’t just contribute to the lack of affordable housing. “They’re also a solution [to affordable housing].”
The agenda for Tuesday’s meeting called for additional public comment on short term rentals. The council sought public input before asking the town’s planning board to prepare changes to the Land Use Ordinance for consideration.
The public obliged. More than 20 people spoke before a standing-room only crowd. The range of comments reflected the complexity of the issue.
“I see that the weekly rental has really fractured our community and taken all of the housing out of circulation,” said resident Josh Hurst, who is a builder. “Housing is being overpriced. From my prospective, a potential solution is I’d like to see short term rentals at a primary residence only.”
Resident Mary Ropp agreed, saying, “We’re creating an investment opportunity for people out of state.” She said that though she feels lucky to rent from family, “I am one of the people who cannot find a house to buy. I want to live here.”
Resident Sarah Keeley said she and her family are the only year-round residents on her street, thanks to the extra income they earn from renting through Airbnb. “We tried a year-round rental and had a hard time finding quality year-round tenants,” she said. “Airbnb was the best thing we could have done. This is how we’re affording to live in Bar Harbor.”
Resident Vicky Fernald asked town council to relax the five-night minimum requirement. “I’ve turned down 22 inquiries for four-night stays,” she said. Fernald also asked where the $250 annual registration fee was going, some of which is earmarked for enforcement of vacation rental regulations. “I heard talk of that $250 going into a fund for affordable housing. I’d like to see that money go to a better use [than enforcement].”
Others in attendance spoke in favor of maintaining the five-night minimum, including Eben Salvatore of Ocean Properties and resident Enoch Albert, who said he rents his primary residence 10 weeks out of the year.
“Stick with five days, because otherwise it’s too much turnover,” Albert told town councilors.
Resident Eric Olsen said that the housing crisis was caused by more than short term rentals.
“Weekly rentals are getting attacked,” he said. “[But] how many neighborhoods have been bought up by hoteliers? You have to think about that part as well. That’s as much if not more of an issue.”
Isaac Iverson of Mount Desert spoke on the issue because “we live on the island, and everything’s related.” Iverson urged counselors to hire a local company for research and enforcement, rather than the proposed Seattle-based company Host Compliance. “You may want to find someone local to allocate the money to. [There are] all sorts of smart people.”
The council took no action except to move on to other items on the agenda. Councilors said they would work with Town Manager Cornell West and Town Planner Michele Gagnon to prepare for more discussions at the Apr. 2 meeting.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post may have created a misimpression. Vicky Fernald’s comment about fees going to “a better use” referred to enforcement of vacation rental rules, not to affordable housing programs.