Editorial: Not a done deal

The Bar Harbor Town Council’s decision last month to include money in the coming fiscal year’s draft budget for enforcement of vacation rental rules drew a strong response. So did the move, also part of the budget process that’s just beginning, to change the fee for vacation rentals from one-time $50 fee to an annual fee of $250.

Both changes may be further discussed in the council’s budget workshops beginning this month. They will also be debated by the warrant committee, which first proposed increasing vacation rental fees and making inspections more frequent a couple of years ago.

The fee hike and enforcement funding will not be a done deal until after town meeting in June.

In December, the code enforcement officer presented the council with information from one of the private companies that contract with municipalities for enforcement of local vacation rental rules. The town has not yet signed a contract with that company, Host Compliance. And town officials plan to follow a standard bidding process for the work.

As is often the case in local government, the issue involves a mix of big-picture questions (things like long-term economic trends and what makes a good neighborhood) and tiny, wonky details. For any challenge, it’s not realistic to wait for the perfect comprehensive solution before taking action. In this case, the move to better enforce existing rules, a technical change, is putting a spotlight on the bigger issue and can jumpstart efforts for needed ordinance updates and improvements.

“Vacation rental” is defined in the town’s land use ordinance as “the use of a dwelling unit to rent to a family for a period of less than 30 days and a minimum of five days.” The definition was added in 2006, before most of the current online booking services for vacation rentals were in business. The town’s separate vacation rental ordinance was adopted the same year.

It may be that the current five-day minimum is not well suited to hosts’ and visitors’ patterns and preferences. If, so the ordinance needs to change. Failing to enforce the rules on the books is not a solution. Town staff do not have the time or the expertise to comb online listings in a way that’s consistent and fair.

There are important questions that will need answers before the town enters a contract with a private company, such as how findings can be appealed in case of scam listings or incorrect information, but outsourcing the work is not in itself a bad thing. The town has outsourced video streaming of meetings, making the municipal code searchable online, mowing the Village Green and lots of other public services.

These vacation rental compliance firms charge flat fees that do not provide an incentive to “catch” more ordinance violations. They don’t rely on general web searches that might sweep up rental listings in Southwest Harbor or Lamoine labeled as “Bar Harbor;” they use the actual town line boundary in mapping software.

There’s no evidence that hotels and bed and breakfast owners asked for this most recent change, though a desire to protect those businesses may have been a factor when the ordinance was written in the first place. Bar Harbor should be able to balance all options available to visitors: vacation rental, hotel, bed and breakfast, camping, glamping, boating and visiting just for the day.

But some regulation is necessary since, as is often noted, visitation here can’t continue to grow forever. The town and island do have a carrying capacity. For every kind of lodging business, the town ought to at least have reliable data about how many guest rooms are being advertised and used, whether the buildings are owner-occupied and other factors.

It’s also true that anticipated rental income is increasingly a factor in to home sale prices, whether a family pans to rent a spare room, the whole house for a few weeks, or rent their vacation home when they’re not here. The point is not to demonize any of these, but in aggregate, vacation rentals can be a double whammy on the affordable housing front: an apartment or home used is not available for long-term, year-round rental and the higher income from vacation rentals is a factor in climbing home prices.

Stakeholders will continue to ask good questions and bring forward good ideas as the debate continues. Stay tuned!

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