By Cara Ryan
Eleven years ago, my husband (a Bar Harbor native) and I still lived most of the year in Illinois, coming home for long summers and Christmas. One night in the spring of 2010, we got a call from a relatively new Bar Harbor neighbor – he’d seen an ambulance at the family home where my parents-in-law (then in their 80s and 90s) still lived. Our watchful neighbor not only alerted us much earlier than anyone else could, he checked on my father-in-law and ended up sitting with him for hours until one of us could get back. We’ll never forget his generosity and kindness, which turned out to be more crucial than anyone could have anticipated.
Our neighbor reached out to help because he knew us, because we were connected. It’s not hard to imagine what would have happened if his house had been a vacation rental (something it became two years later). Not that visitors are bad or even indifferent, but they’re spectators in our neighborhoods with no connection to our stories.
The people who bought his house (and two more in town) never moved here. I’ve been told it’s not outside investors but local residents who want, who need, to vacation-rent our town’s houses. It’s both. And they’re all just getting started if we don’t get some limits in place.
Our Town Council, Planning Department and Planning Board have spent years working and, sadly, arguing over a set of regulations that would in effect close the barn door, at least for a while, and keep the houses we still have from being bought by people who will neither live in them nor rent them to year-round residents, but only use them for vacation rental profit. While our committees debated and negotiated, the number of vacation rentals in Bar Harbor more than doubled: from 185 in 2006 to 518 in 2020. If all the pending applications are approved, over 700 (a full quarter) of our houses will be tied up in vacation rentals.
It’s time to shift gears and stop issuing licenses for new, non-resident-owned rentals. We finally have something on the ballot to do it. A land use ordinance amendment (Article 4) will not take away anyone’s investment, will not prevent anyone already licensed from renewing, and will not affect anyone who newly decides to rent out part or all of their primary residence. The cap, set a few percentage points below where we currently are, applies only to non-owner-occupied vacation rentals.
How will we get down to this cap number? Gradually – through attrition and by not allowing the transfer of rental license (never a legal “right”) along with a property when ownership changes. This, to my mind, is not only reasonable but an extremely gentle way to rein in some housing. Again, it’s about closing the barn door – a little late – so that we don’t lose more.
And yet, some still aren’t happy, and say we’re encroaching on their right to make the money they planned on when they sell their rentals or their heirs’ right to investment income in perpetuity. Such tenacity might be fine if there weren’t so much at stake. But I believe our community is at stake, and even if this measure alone won’t solve the problem, it’s a crucial step in the right direction. We have so few houses available – and now affordable – for the working neighbors and families we need if we’re to be a functional, vibrant and real community.
We’re at a crossroads right now. We have to decide whether we’re going to try to salvage something of that sense of community that Bar Harbor once had even more strongly: the sense of people living together, working together, sharing our joys and troubles and sense of place, even as we share our special place with the world.
I think we can live with some level of ever-changing visitors in our neighborhoods. It’s about balance – every town has to decide for itself how much is enough, its own tipping point when this business model has taken too big a bite out of the fabric of its community. I think we’re at that point. Maybe, as some say, we’ve passed it. We can only salvage what we have left.
Article 4 is just one piece of the solution – there are other amendments on the November ballot that can help grow our housing. And we’ll need to do still more to improve equity and affordability in the coming years. Affordable housing has become a nationwide, even global problem that won’t be easy to survive, let alone manage. But we have to make a start.
Article 4 has the near unanimous support of Town Council, as well as the Warrant Committee members who did not have to recuse themselves. The Planning Board did not consider their own potential conflicts of interest as grounds for recusal.
Community takes time – time to build, time for its connections to deepen, time to know how to be there for each other. I believe Bar Harbor still has something of this and shouldn’t lose what’s left, only to rely on the “kindness of strangers” to whom we’ve lost our neighborhoods and what we once were.
If we show some faith in our community, we can save it. Please vote YES on Article 4.
Cara Ryan resides in Bar Harbor.