Zoning changes explained, debated

BAR HARBOR — A package of zoning changes prepared by the town’s Planning and Code Department is on the ballot for Town Meeting elections, for which absentee voting is already open. These changes, Articles 3, 4 and 5 on the ballot, all grew out of the Housing Policy Framework approved by the Town Council to “increase housing availability and affordability for year-round residents.” All of these staff-initiated amendments have received majority support from the Warrant Committee and its General Government subcommittee. 

Two other proposed amendments to the town Land Use Ordinance come to the voters by other means: one was requested by a property owner and one is a citizen initiative seeking to change definitions of vacation rentals. 

The Town Council held public hearings on each of the articles Tuesday. A mailing urging a “no” vote on four of the zoning changes went to all residents this week from resident Donna Karlson, claiming the changes would result in more seasonal employee housing in residential neighborhoods and less access for year-round families. 

The goal of the amendments, Planning Board Chair Tom St. Germain told the Islander, is to create a way for employers to provide housing to their workforce without buying up existing single-family homes, as is now often the case. 

In surveying 58 local businesses, Planning Director Michele Gagnon said, her department found those employers collectively use 88 buildings, 44 single-family homes and 241 apartment units to house their staff. 

“They have secured all those and I have visited a lot of them,” she said. “You have some rooms that could easily have had two or three people in them, but they only had one because they had to meet five people per apartment,” since a group occupying a dwelling unit must meet the definition of “family” in the LUO under current rules. 

Two of the articles create new land use definitions, employee living quarters and shared accommodations, in which that maximum of five unrelated people would not apply. But they also come with strict licensing requirements to ensure they are healthy and safe, and not overcrowded. 

“Most housing of employees, no matter where they are, is governed by the rules of single-family homes,” St. Germain said. “What the ELQs have done for on-site accommodations of employees is sever the link between the rules of single-family homes that currently apply and created another set of rules.” 

The amendments don’t substantively change the definition of family, which is based on the U.S. Census, Gagnon said at the hearing. 

Article 2 

The first zoning change on the ballot is uncontroversial. It was requested by the town assessor to address an inconsistency between the LUO and the town’s Addressing Ordinance. It would replace references to “Municipal Tax Assessor” with “Addressing Officer” in a section related to certifying street names. 

Article 3 

Article 3 changes the permitting authority for one category of multifamily dwellings, ones with three or four dwelling units on one parcel of land. The intent, town staff say, is to reduce expense and red tape for residents who want to add an apartment on their property. 

“I’ve been hearing from residents who want to add another dwelling unit to their property” who become discouraged when they learn about how extensive the site plan review process is, Code Enforcement Office Angela Chamberlain said. “It’s discouraging people from providing that housing.” 

Opponents say the change could be exploited to create apartment units for seasonal employee housing. “There’s no abutter notification, no required public notices, no neighborhood meetings,” resident Diane Vreeland said at the hearing. 

Gagnon stressed that any development large enough to trigger subdivision review under state law would still be reviewed by the Planning Board. 

“It does not mean that projects won’t get careful consideration,” Councilor Gary Friedmann said. 

Article 4 

The employee living quarters (ELQ) amendment has been in development for many years. It would allow a dormitory-style building for workers on the same property as the business where they work, or one owned by the same company. 

The new use is not exclusively for hotel companies to house employees, nor exclusively for seasonal employees. 

Two of the districts where employee living quarters are allowed are of particular concern: Town Hill Residential and Village Residential. 

The Town Hill Residential district allows seven of the eight Transient Accommodation uses, St. Germain said. The Town Council “was very specific when they decided not to put the dormitory amendments on the ballot in July of last year,” he said, that areas that can have transient accommodations need to be included” in the list of districts where ELQs are allowed. 

In the Village Residential district, additional restrictions are placed on ELQs to prevent the disruption of residential neighborhoods. A property with a transient accommodation (such as a bedandbreakfast) and associated ELQ must have frontage on or access to Route 3 or Route 233,” St. Germain said. “The side residential streets don’t have access to or frontage on those roads, so there is no permitted use of a bedandbreakfast there. That conditional use was “included for a very specific reason by the Planning Board,” he said. “In the event someone ever does choose to build (a bedandbreakfast) there, they would have this tool to house their employees, and not make a future incursion into residential neighborhoods.” 

Article 5 

A simple way to think about the proposed “shared accommodation” (SA) use, Gagnon said, is that they’re like rooming houses — a way for unrelated people to live more affordably in a managed property similar to the way the YWCA operates now. 

Shared accommodations are not limited to employee housing. 

Some opponents have said they worry that large SAs could be built that would be out of character with their neighborhoods. 

“Dimensional requirements will apply,” Gagnon said. “If we see a larger SA, it’s probably because we need it.” 

Like ELQs, these new uses would require licensing and inspections. 

Article 6 

Article 6 is a LUO amendment requested by Holiday Associates of Naples, one of the entities that hotel company Ocean Properties does business under, related to a Hulls Cove property at the former Park Entrance Motel. 

The current boundary line between the Shoreland General Development II district and Hulls Cove Business district runs between the two existing larger motel buildings. 

The change would move the boundary back from the water, moving about three acres from the Hulls Cove district into the shoreland district. It would also add campgrounds and a new category of transient accommodations (TA) as allowed uses in the shoreland zone. 

It would allow a hotel complex “much larger than any currently allowed,” resident John Cochran said at the public hearing. 

If a future site plan relies on grandfathered status for the old motel, Chamberlain said, “they’d only be grandfathered for the (existing) number of rooms and they’d have to demonstrate that they’ve been continuing this use.” 

Article 7 

A citizen petition zoning change, brought by a group of residents led by Julia Walker Thomas in January, would change the definition of “vacation rental” to “differentiate between owner-occupied vacation rental properties (homesteadqualified, year-round residences) and dwelling units owned by non-residents,” according to the explanation of the change on the draft warrant article. 

“Non-residents would be prohibited from doing more than a single vacation rental per dwelling unit and from renting for stays of fewer than five days.” 

This spring, the town Planning Department has prepared proposals for a new vacation rental regulatory framework, which may go to voters in NovemberThat plan also envisions fewer restrictions on rentals that are in the host’s permanent residence. 

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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