Housing diversity

In order to encourage the creation of more year-round housing, Bar Harbor officials have been considering changes to the town’s land use ordinance (LUO).

Originally, a change decreasing the minimum square foot lot size per family from 750 to 400 in the downtown village zones was scheduled for the June town meeting ballot. Removed late last fall for further amendment, it may resurface on a future warrant.

That proposal, however, applies only to two small, congested zones, providing only for relatively small, cramped residences in apartment-type settings. If the town truly is worried about increasing the availability of year-round rental housing, it should consider changes to encourage the creation of new units in every district. Would not year-round renters find it desirable to live outside the crowded and often chaotic activity of downtown?

For example, in many Maine residential zones, the minimum lot size is 88,000 square feet per family, about two acres. A change to 44,000 would allow the creation of rental apartments and bungalows in every district.

While the downtown changes were conceived as taking advantage of existing municipal water and sewer services, current rules concerning well and septic fields are adequate to protect rural areas as well. Should a lot not support expanded water use or sufficient septic capacity, it would remain unbuildable.

And, of course, any increase in density should include an ironclad prohibition on any of the new units being used for rentals of less than 90 days, regardless of zone.

At same time, in the downtown, the LUO should be amended to remove the complex and confusing floor-area calculation. Much like the IRS’s “alternative minimum tax,” it governs the overall size of new structures – beyond lot coverage – and setbacks. It bases the amount of allowable floor space in any new building on average floor space of all primary structures on other lots within 300 feet. The calculations are extraordinarily complex and different in every application. Challenged in court, the current LUO might be unconstitutional.

Bar Harbor and eventually all towns on Mount Desert Island have a vested interest in assuring that our communities offer a diverse and affordable mix of housing options. Boldly changing Bar Harbor’s LUO to encourage widespread private investment holds the best hope for preserving a diversity of housing opportunities.

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