For several decades now, Bar Harbor’s zoning ordinance has included a maximum building height of 40 feet. That number conveniently coincides with the maximum height at which the town’s fire apparatus can be operated effectively.
Determining where, on a sloped site, a measurement should be taken is complex and can be disputed. The code also permits exemptions for church steeples, clock and elevator towers, equipment rooms and other unoccupied spaces.
In the past few years, developers have begun pushing up against that height standard. Land value increases and higher construction costs have influenced owners to maximize every possible cubic foot. The town undoubtedly will see more looming structures.
There is no better time than the present to take another look at maximum building height.
Envision a horizontal line drawn from the top of the tallest existing structures. Imagine a skyline of continuous mass of wood, masonry or metal. Beyond that, think how it might look were every building down both sides of Cottage, Main, West and Mount Desert streets that same height. Few folks, we’ll wager, think that would enhance the community’s architectural character.
There already are some town code standards that address the overall bulk of buildings. But with nearly 100 percent lot coverage downtown, those will not be particularly effective in halting the eventual creation of four-story slot canyons along downtown streets.
Three-story buildings have been a part of the downtown landscape since the early 1900s. Larger hotels from that era, and even some current ones, may have been taller overall, but they were set back much farther from the street on lots that featured open and landscaped areas.
Perhaps it is time for Bar Harbor to consider a new maximum height, one that acknowledges the town’s past yet still holds a brighter prospect for future aesthetics. A simple statement that says no part of a commercial or multi-unit residential building may extend more than 36 feet above grade, measured from the lowest point of the structure would suffice. Period.
Nonprofits such as churches, the hospital, theaters, schools and the laboratories could be considered on a case-by-case basis.
A maximum height of 36 feet would allow for three stories and an adequately pitched roof but preclude the ability to tuck a fourth floor into the building’s envelope. And there really is no technological or design need to exempt clock towers, elevator shafts and stairwells.
Several large structures already in place downtown provide a ready example of what the entire downtown might one day look like were the current height restriction retained. If folks are comfortable with that trend, fine. No need to change the ordinance. But if residents are concerned about the possible proliferation of large structures, now is the time to lower the height standards.