Editorial: On the merits

The town’s review of the planned expansion of an employee housing site on West Street Extension in Bar Harbor, owned by a subsidiary of hotel company Ocean Properties, continued this week. The proposal is to nearly double the footprint of the complex, constructing four new buildings and reconfigure the existing buildings to make the apartments larger. Last spring, company representatives said the entire project would allow for perhaps 20 more beds in the apartment complex, compared with the current seasonal occupancy of about 65.

Early plans were available when the town’s planning board held a first “sketch plan review” for the project in March of last year. Town officials, some neighbors and project representatives held a walk-through of the property and neighborhood in April.

The developers left those meetings with the impression that most of the neighbors’ concerns had been addressed. But another group of neighbors got involved in the fall, raising questions at the site plan completeness review discussions in November.

It’s certainly debatable whether the Planned Unit Development -Village (PUD) use, a particular type of residential subdivision development, is an appropriate tool for seasonal employee housing. The purpose of PUD developments, according to Bar Harbor’s land use ordinance, is to encourage infill development where town services already exist, clustering of buildings to allow for “public parks and gardens” and to promote affordable housing.

The town attorney and planning board have grilled the applicants on the affordable housing question. They’re right to do so. The project may meet the requirements for affordable housing in the ordinance if enough of the units are filled by year-round employees with appropriate lease agreements. That’s a big if.

But critics of the plan should stick to the merits.

Police reports do not support claims that the seasonal employees living in the apartments are responsible for a spike in noise, disorderly conduct or safety complaints. Indeed, it seems more likely that an increase in litter such as small “nips” bottles of hard liquor is attributable to the vastly increased traffic on West Street Extension in 2018 when the road was part of a construction detour for the whole summer season.

And the rules must also be applied fairly. The apartments are being constructed as “multifamily” dwellings and family is defined as a group “living as a single housekeeping unit.” If critics of this development expect the town to investigate the details of the lease agreements, whether the landlord assigns rooms and whether residents shop for groceries and cook meals together, then that investigation should also apply to all the buildings used for employee housing in town, be they former hotels or a former factory. It should apply to any roommate living situation.

Town officials charged with reviewing such developments are tasked with evaluating compliance with the ordinance. The planning board may not reject a proposal for any reason other than lack of compliance. Seasonal employees are part-time residents just as seasonal residents are. Many of the questions of being a good neighbor are outside the scope of the ordinance. But surely ad hominem attacks are a poor way to approach a neighbor.

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