Editorial: Where workers sleep

Mount Desert Island continues to grapple with a shortage of affordable, year-round housing. In watching recent trends and sorting out what government or other groups could to that would make a difference, vacation rentals and seasonal employee housing appear as twin challenges. Neither is a bad thing in its own right, but the growth of both has contributed to the shrinking number of year-round units available, especially those available to rent.

The Bar Harbor Town Council’s official goals document for the current year doesn’t use the phrase “housing crisis,” but it does list “increase the amount of year-round housing affordable to working families” at the top of the list.

Strategies listed include zoning for higher density, increasing the supply of year-round housing for purchase and rental and providing “incentives for year-round rentals” to “stem conversion of year-round housing to vacation rentals.”

This past winter, one hotel company’s plan to expand the apartment complex on West Street Extension it uses for mostly seasonal employee housing drew sharp criticism. Some neighbors argued that large employers should be required to house workers on the same property where they report to work. That seems a bit extreme.

Back in 2013, when Witham Family Hotels purchased the Ledgelawn Apartments (some year-round tenants would remain for the next two years), company representatives said they were moving “to consolidate and upgrade our housing that will give us some flexibility if so desired to put other units back on the market.”

In 2016, the remaining year-round tenants in that complex were asked to move out and the company’s leader wrote to the Planning Board to request zoning changes that would allow dormitory-style housing, saying that would make it possible for the company to sell the housing units it owns with the goal of converting them back to year-round housing.

It took more than three years, but the land use ordinance (LUO) amendment adding employee dormitories, rooming houses and workforce dormitories was finally finished; the planning department hoped it would go to voters this November.

But then a few residents of downtown neighborhoods spoke up, saying “there is a strong possibility that these developments would not be designed to fit the character of the community.” They argued that the town does not have an obligation to make life easier for the large, profitable hotel companies by approving the change.

Some councilors were willing to move the amendment forward if one particular district could be removed. The hotel company executive agreed. But the move failed by one vote.

It’s likely too late now to make any needed adjustments and get the amendment on the November ballot. But the council and Planning Board should not abandon the project. It’s one of a handful of changes that stand a real chance of making a dent in the problem.

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