Editorial: Accidental outlaws

Ever since Airbnb, Uber and the like rolled out the services that have come to be known as “the sharing economy,” governments at all levels have struggled to adapt rules to the new reality. Still, laws and regulations on the books mostly don’t address the activities made possible by the new tech platforms, since only a few years ago they didn’t exist.

Bar Harbor’s vacation rental ordinance has not been updated since 2010, when Airbnb was still being run from its founders’ loft apartment. Between 2015 and 2017, the number of Airbnb bookings in Bar Harbor increased fivefold, from 2,600 to 12,800. Vacation rentals booked through other services also became more popular here during that time. Many in-town buildings have been converted either to short-term rentals or to seasonal employee housing.

Now that those visitors are in the habit of coming here, property owners are arguing they should be allowed to make money from them. But it’s likely that the growth in visitation is attributable in large part to the existence of these new lodging options. And cries that our growth in visitation is unsustainable are louder every year.

There’s even confusion about terminology. “Vacation rentals” are defined in Bar Harbor’s land use ordinance as stays of between 5 and 29 days. The term “short-term rentals,” sometimes used to mean vacation rentals, also is applied to nightly stays. “Short-term rentals” are not defined or used in local regulation.

Yes, there are many residents and property owners who were not aware of the town’s five-night minimum for vacation rentals until the Town Council’s recent action to increase the fee. The significant number of these accidental outlaws might be reason enough to hurry through an ordinance change for a vote in November adjusting the minimum stay.

But new town planner Michele Gagnon hits the nail on the head when she suggests the town ought to step back and “consider a blank-slate approach” to addressing rules and licensing for all the various forms of vacation rentals and transient accommodations (hotels, bed and breakfasts, campgrounds). If the latter are allowed only in certain districts, should vacation rentals be limited as well? Are the fees and taxes assessed for each kind of business a fair reflection of their use of municipal services and impacts on the town?

The council and Planning Board should continue working to understand these questions and all the other issues raised by the explosive growth in vacation rentals. But a new policy package will not be ready for a November vote. The lengthy vetting process and town vote required for land use ordinance changes serve an important purpose. Zoning is a legal way to limit property rights, so it must always be handled with care.

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