Editorial: Elephant in the room

The Bar Harbor Town Council has a workshop scheduled for next week to discuss housing. One major policy question, and the most controversial, is off the table for that meeting: whether or how to further regulate or limit vacation rentals.

A moratorium on new, non-hosted vacation rentals was one of six ideas floated by councilor Gary Friedmann in a letter asking to keep housing on the council’s agenda. His proposal also included zoning changes to allow rooming houses and dormitories, and allowing higher density in areas served by town water and sewer. He suggested working with The Jackson Laboratory to plan an employee housing project that “contributes to the tax base” and partnerships with organizations such as Island Housing Trust and the National Park Service.

The council voted 4-3 to set up the meeting this way: everything on the table, except the vacation rental part. The reason given was concern about setting up an unfair dichotomy between property owners who are and are not allowed to have vacation rentals. It’s true that any limit or regulation will be unpopular with some stakeholders, but reticence to set limits is how we got into our current over-commodified mess.

Mount Desert Island lost 111 year-round housing units between 2011 and 2016, according to the recent Island Housing Trust study. That’s more than our share of the 492-unit drop in year-round occupied housing units for the whole state over the same period.

Blame gets volleyed back and forth between two favorite targets: seasonal employee housing and vacation rentals. Both are responsible for the loss of year-round units. Both have, in some form, been around for a long time. Both have accelerated in recent years.

Without the ability to address both, officials are entering the arena with one hand tied behind their backs.

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