Viewpoint: Vote yes on 4

By Earl Brechlin 

Residents of Bar Harbor have a real opportunity to make a strong statement about the future of this community when voting on Article 4 on the town’s Nov. 2 written ballot.  

There’s no way to overstate the fact that if we don’t vote “yes” and pass question 4, the year-round core of this community will continue to be hollowed out. It’s not hyperbole to suggest if this doesn’t pass, the place we all know and love could very well be lost forever. 

Question 4 will create two classes of vacation rentals in districts where allowed now – one for year-round residents who want to rent their primary residential property or portion thereof, and another for non-owner-occupied units, such as investment properties owned by area residents or houses owned by those from out of town. It will place a cap only on the total of non-owner-occupied units at a very generous 9 percent of total housing units. 

Even a quick look at the composition of local housing stock shows the major impact that cap will make. Bar Harbor already has more than 700 vacation rental properties permitted or in process. Nearly 150 applications came in this year alone. There will be more. Undoubtedly scores more are unlicensed. 

Seasonal summer employee housing has removed another 360 homes and apartment units from circulation. And just last month one large hotel owner applied to license 74 of those as, you guessed it, vacation rentals. That’s in addition to hundreds of traditional “summer cottages” used by out-of-town residents only part of the year. 

Bar Harbor has 2,795 housing units. At current rates of conversion, 50 percent of the available places to live will soon be off the table for people who want to work and raise a family here. It has already begun. Bar Harbor’s year-round population actually fell in the most recent census. 

The threat is real. Just this spring, the Schwartz family – active, contributing members of the community – were forced to move away when they lost their year-round rental and could not find another place to live.  

Critics are right when they say passage of question 4 won’t by itself create affordable housing. Affordability is a complex issue. Yes, the market sets value but what’s one of the first things potential investors or deep-pocket, second-home buyers are told when they gasp at local prices? That’s right: “This property has great rental potential.” Regular people cannot compete against that.  

Money has always talked here so it’s fair to ask those who oppose this measure where they make their money. There will be no surprises. 

Bar Harbor has been moving toward tempering the market by now allowing employers to create dorms, introducing a fair vacation rental cap and by allowing for great density with proposed bonus dwelling rules, which contain language prohibiting any new units from becoming vacation rentals. 

Voting “Yes” on question 4 will not take away anyone’s rights to continue to do what they are doing now, regardless of where they live or how many homes they may own. They would not have invested, and the bank would not have given them a mortgage, unless the numbers worked before – and they still will. For them. In their lifetime. 

No one is being forced to take a loss. What opponents are worrying about is not the potential to reap a profit in increased equity but how much bigger that windfall might be if the property could be resold or transferred as a non-owner-occupied vacation rental. As the guy in the blue tarp commercial on Bangor television stations asks, “Big? Bigger? How big you neeeeed?” 

At this critical juncture, we all need to weigh financial self-interest against the bigger picture. As year-round homeowners and the operators of a guest cottage we built ourselves on our property, my wife and I could be negatively affected by that theoretical reduction in future equity. But we are among many in similar circumstances who see “maybe money” as a small price to pay to keep this community strong.  

It is vital that non-homestead commercial rentals not be grandfathered in perpetuity. If we do, we’ll never get down to 9 percent: The situation will never improve. There is potential for more licenses in the future, if and when the total number of housing units increases. 

The importance of this vote transcends petty complaints about the process. That’s the past. This vote is about Bar Harbor’s future.  

If you care about the sense of community we all cherish, if you care about living in real neighborhoods instead of on streets that are dark in winter, if you want to make a statement that Bar Harbor as a town prioritizes community over commerce, please go to the polls and vote “Yes” on question 4 on Nov. 2. 

Earl Brechlin of Bar Harbor is an award-winning Maine author, journalist and registered Maine guide. After initial public scoping sessions nearly two years ago, he was part of a vacation rental focus group. 

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