Worker dormitories rejected

BAR HARBOR — A proposed zoning change to allow employee dormitories, rooming houses and workforce housing in certain districts was rejected by the Town Council last week by a 4-2 vote.

Another proposed change, allowing homeowners to rent a portion of their homes as a vacation rental, took a step forward toward going to voters in November.

In a 5-1 vote, the council set a public hearing on that change for Aug. 20.

The dormitory proposal, which the Planning Board had been working on for quite some time, would have created and defined three new uses in the Land Use Ordinance (LUO): employee dormitory, rooming house, and workforce housing, according to a memo to town councilors from Town Planning Director Michele Gagnon.

All would be subject to site plan approval, according to Gagnon. Rooming houses and workforce housing would both have parking requirements. Employee dormitories, being an accessory use, would not require parking.

The Planning Board voted unanimously last month to recommend the proposed changes, which board member Erica Brooks noted would free up year-round housing currently used for seasonal employees.

“It’s not going to create more of a housing problem,” Brooks said. “It’s going to free up some of those houses … owned by employers.”

David C. Witham of Witham Family Hotels said at several meetings that if his company were allowed to build dormitories, it would plan to sell the single-family homes it has purchased to house workers.

“There is language prohibiting any of these uses (Employee Dormitory, Rooming House and Workforce Dormitory) from being used as vacation rentals or sold separately as condominiums,” Gagnon wrote in the memo.

Councilor Erin Cough said she did not think the proposed amendment was ready to go forward, because “there are big holes in it.”

She asked how the restriction on using dormitories and rooming houses as vacation rentals would be enforced. “Are we seriously going to leave this to our Code Enforcement Officer again without any guidelines on how to enforce this?” she asked. “I just really feel like we’re dumping it on our code enforcement officer to say best of luck to figure out how these aren’t being used as a vacation rental.”

Cough also said she would like to see a 30-day minimum requirement added to the dormitory and rooming house definitions, to prevent them being used for transient accommodations.

Councilor Stephen Coston spoke in favor of the proposed amendments. “Passing some of these employee housing definitions will help put housing stock into supply,” he said. “It can allow large employers to house their workers in the way they actually want to, and is better for all parties … I want to move forward ”

The motion to schedule a public hearing on the proposed amendment failed, with Cough, Jeff Dobbs, Matt Hochman, and Judie Noonan voting against, and Coston and Gary Friedmann voting in favor. Councilor Joe Minutolo was absent.

After the vote, Friedmann asked to have the dormitory amendment put back on the agenda for the next meeting.

“I can’t tell from the vote tonight whether council just doesn’t want to see [those uses] in this town, or whether there are just fixes that need to be made,” Friedmann said.

He suggested Dobbs and Town Manager Cornell Knight get together “to identify whether and how to revise and put before the voters … rather than just drop this because it was voted down.”

“I have an extremely hard time leaving any writing of an ordinance to a single town councilor,” Cough argued. “That’s why we have a planning board, and that’s why we have a planning department.”

Friedmann said that was why he would like to see it back on the agenda. “Because what we did tonight was we killed it,” he said. “We didn’t tell the planning director to take any direction … we just killed it.”

Vacation rental definition

The LUO amendment that would allow residents to rent out spare rooms to visitors is set for a public hearing next month. If the council votes again to move the proposal forward, it will be reviewed by the Warrant Committee and go to voters in November.

The current definition of vacation rental in the LUO only allows for a whole dwelling unit to be rented.

“I really think that this is kind of band-aiding a very broken ordinance to begin with,” Cough said. “And to push it through simply because we have to meet some deadline, to me, seems irresponsible.”

“I happen to believe that until our planning department is in a position to take a comprehensive view of the whole ordinance,” said Friedmann, “we need to do our best we can to address the very real issues that have been put in front of us. Let’s pass this and then continue to work on the big picture.”

The motion passed with Friedmann, Coston, Dobbs, Hochman, and Noonan voting in favor, with Cough opposing.

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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