By Earl Brechlin
By a margin of more than four to one, Bar Harbor voters last November approved amending the definition of vacation rental to allow homeowners to rent the entire residence “or a portion thereof.” That was done in acknowledgement that many of our friends, family and neighbors only rent a single bedroom or in-law apartment and not their entire homes and that they didn’t deserve to face enforcement action for a tradition that dates back more than century and a half.
While that change was helpful it did not address the second half of the issue which is length of stay. The vast majority of single room rentals are only for a night or two. The current ordinance prohibits any rental for fewer than five days (four nights). Much of the continued support for allowing folks to rent their homes, as expressed in that vote in November, undoubtedly stems from an understanding that the ability of year-round residents to generate income is an important tool to making and keeping their housing costs affordable.
Now, in order to complete the second half of the required change a citizen’s petition effort is currently underway. It would allow shorter stays but only on properties owned and occupied by year-round residents. It would not permit shorter rentals in other units.
The change would split the definition of vacation rental in two. One would be “non-hosted” vacation rental which applies to any legally registered property in town. The other would be “hosted” vacation rental.
Hosted would be defined as properties that currently qualify for a homestead property tax exemption under Maine law. That means your primary or legal residence, where you live, register your car, and where you are registered to vote. With this change, only hosted rentals would be allowed to rent a single room and be allowed to do so for shorter stays.
Non-hosted rentals, such as those owned by out-of-town speculators who own property as a business or investment, could continue under this change, but would be prohibited from renting single rooms and from renting the entire property for fewer than five days.
Along with codifying current practice, which will prevent dozens of residents from becoming outlaws this summer, this proposed change provides a clear way for the town to move forward in its debate over the impact of vacation rentals on the overall housing availability picture. If the town determines that speculative rentals remove too many properties from being available for the year-round community, amendments can address non-hosted vacation rentals independently, allowing that practice to be examined, regulated, even prohibited, without severely impacting year-round residents.
On Election Day, Tuesday, March 3, from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. petition circulators will be gathering signatures in the council chambers adjacent to the polls. Please stop in, sign the petition, ask questions, and by helping get this on the ballot, give the good citizens of Bar Harbor a chance to weigh in on this regulatory improvement.
Earl Brechlin is a Registered Maine Guide, award-winning author, and resident of Bar Harbor.