Small is good

The suggestion that allowing smaller residential building lots is one way communities can encourage more affordable housing was floated at a recent League of Towns meeting. Mount Desert Town Manager Durlin Lunt explained that sticking to the five-acre minimum lot size for many zones in his community puts the cost of land well outside the reach of regular working people.

He’s exactly right.

Overly large minimum lot sizes have been used for far too long in many Mount Desert Island communities as a way to frustrate development. It is a purely economic manifestation of the NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) philosophy whereby people tend to shut others out once they have established themselves.

Sticking with large lot sizes, however, has allowed for the continued construction of large seasonal homes for folks who often do not become fully-contributing citizens of the year-round community. Meanwhile, as traditional core businesses dry up for lack of customers, people of more modest means, including lab workers, firefighters, teachers and nurses, end up buying land off-island to create housing they can afford. In addition to eroding the base of our year-round communities, that dynamic also exacerbates traffic and congestion as more and more people commute to work here from off-island towns.

Residential density, too, also should be on the table. Currently in Bar Harbor, there is a proposal to allow smaller footprints per family in the downtown area. Why not expand some form of that to all zones, provided, of course, that subsurface wastewater disposal is properly addressed?

And while discussions proceed on whether large minimum lot sizes should be scaled back, towns also should look at minimum house sizes as well. There is a groundswell in the U.S. towards the construction of “tiny” houses. While some of the more extreme examples, at only 250 square feet, may be more akin to a camper than a house, requiring all new construction of single family homes to be 1,000 square feet or larger could probably be eased without sacrificing public health or safety.

While the outright creation of affordable homes by nonprofit agencies is one way to help alleviate a lack of affordable housing, there is no faster economic return on investment than removing laws that stand in the way of the private sector’s ability to respond to market pressures.

One reason many past efforts to ease lot-size restrictions have failed is that NIMBY is a powerful opposing force. But the individual self-interests of residents or neighborhoods should not be allowed to override the much larger community imperative of ensuring social vibrancy and economic diversity.

The sad realization is that in an effort to try and “preserve” our communities with overly restrictive zoning, we actually may be hastening their demise.

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