BAR HARBOR, Maine — Two concerns about the future of the town came to a head at Tuesday night’s Town Council meeting.
One of those concerns is what kind of effect the practice of renting out local homes by the week during the summer is having on the fabric of the community. In June 2006, after years of mulling over the issue, Bar Harbor voters approved new restrictions for where in town such properties can be located, and what kind of life-safety standards they must maintain.
But the other concern is what kind of financial cost the new rules might have on the town. Councilor Paul Paradis, who favors having voters decide whether to allow the rental practice in all local zoning districts, told his fellow board members Tuesday that a recent legal challenge to the ordinance likely cost the town between $10,000 and $20,000, and that more legal challenges were certainly on the way.
“It’s my contention that we’re going to get more of these appeals and that they’re going to get more expensive,” Paradis said. “The question is: Is the price tag worth it? I think that’s a question for voters to decide, not [the council].”
Councilor Rob Jordan sided with Paradis on the issue, saying the current economic climate was not conducive to running up large legal bills. He said the restrictions constitute a “major” property rights issue.
“The reality here is a financial one,” Jordan said. “We have no idea what the legal costs could be. It could be $5,000. It could be $100,000.”
If voters were to reject allowing weekly rentals in all districts, thus signaling that they want to stand by the current restrictions, Jordan added, “[then] we’ll pay for all the lawyers that come our way.”
The reasoning behind adopting the current restrictions falls into two categories. One was to help preserve year-round neighborhoods by preventing houses from becoming purely investment properties by which relatively wealthy absentee landlords rent them out by the week in the summer and in the winter either move in temporary tenants or keep them vacant.
The other was to even the regulatory playing field between seasonal lodging businesses and weekly rental properties. Lodging businesses long have been held to high standards for accessibility and fire prevention measures but, before June 2006, weekly rental properties only had to meet basic residential safety codes, even though they compete for customers with local inns and hotels.
Several councilors voiced apprehension Tuesday about putting the whole weekly rental ordinance up for a quick and significant revision after all the deliberate effort that went into drafting it.
Ruth Eveland, the council chairman, said town policy shouldn’t be dictated by fear of lawsuits from a minority of wealthy property owners.
“To me, that feels like bullying, and I have a real problem with that,” she said. “I don’t believe making this radical a change is the right approach.”
Paradis put the situation in dire terms, saying that high legal bills could force the town to reduce spending elsewhere, such as by closing the municipal transfer station or cutting back on plowing in the winter.
Councilor Bob Garland was not swayed by Paradis’ argument.
The council needs to be responsive to the concerns of all residents, not just those who can afford to hire lawyers, he said. Plus, the council should not govern with scare tactics, he added.
“I call that a scare tactic,” Garland said of Paradis’ comment about having to cut or eliminate other municipal services.
The council voted 4-3 against putting Paradis’ proposal on the June municipal ballot. Paradis, Jordan and Sandy McFarland all favored holding the referendum, but Eveland, Garland, Julia Schloss and Greg Veilleux opposed it. Those opposed to the measure indicated they would prefer having the town’s planning staff explore ways the ordinance might be amended in order to reduce the threat of legal challenges, rather than having it abruptly changed at the ballot box.