Editorial: Chipping away

Policy change in a small town can be a bit like home renovation.

A homeowner might be inspired by home and garden television, in which professionals advise starry-eyed clients that it will be a simple matter to knock out a wall here, create a nook there and re-grade the backyard. But when it comes time to hammer out a plan the family can afford, the grand visions might get scaled back a bit. Or a lot.

In Bar Harbor in the last few years, voters have rejected large-scale changes to the town’s land use ordinance, which all parties agree is a messy, cobbled-together affair. So, town officials have opted to take “smaller bites” they hope will have better chances at approval in our complex town meeting system.

Two such “small bites” go to the voters in November, with a final public hearing before the Town Council next week. One allows a portion of a residence, rather than the whole thing, to be permitted as a vacation rental. The other relaxes a few of the procedural requirements for review of site plans.

The “portion of a dwelling unit” change is significant. Those who rent only part of their house, or an outbuilding without full services such as a kitchen, cannot be approved for a vacation rental permit under current regulations. Two such households have even applied to become bed and breakfasts in order to be allowed to continue a practice that many others are getting away with.

But when compared to the initial goals set in the spring, that change is awfully small. It doesn’t differentiate between hosted and non-hosted vacation rentals. It doesn’t address the five-night minimum stay currently in the ordinance. And it certainly doesn’t create any new regulations or limits on new, non-hosted vacation rentals.

Some proposed changes were shot down as “feel good” proposals with little chance of having an impact on the town’s housing supply. And officials they were hesitant to put forward changes without clearer goals, or more study. Hopefully the Planning Department’s new Housing Policy Framework will help on both counts. It lists “develop land use and licensing regulations” to “curtail the conversion of year-round housing to short-term rentals” as a task to be completed within one year.

The amendments on the table make sense, but the bigger renovations remain.

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