Bar Harbor voters will have three critical decisions to make when proposed zoning changes come before them this November. I urge every resident to vote against these changes both to preserve the town’s affordable housing and continue the wise limits on commercial development created in the town’s Comprehensive Plan.
The town’s Warrant Committee has recommended that none of these changes be approved. As the Warrant Committee is the most representative institution in the town, drawing its membership from a wide spectrum of voters, its wise counsel should be heeded.
The first proposed change would transform the mile-long rural corridor from the head of the island to Town Hill into a commercial strip development more appropriate for New Jersey than for Maine. The Comprehensive Plan wisely designates part of this area as a critical rural habitat and expressly prohibits strip development, recognizing that commercial development should be limited to established villages. The charm of Bar Harbor is that it has long stretches of residential and rural areas interspersed with charming villages like Town Hill. Let’s keep it that way.
The second proposed change deals with rooming houses for seasonal workers.
At least one member of the Town Council has admitted that as many as 50 rooming houses now operate illegally, as the code limits houses to no more than five unrelated people. Every one of those illegal rooming houses will be granted amnesty if they can show that they have rented a room any time in the past. Once granted this amnesty, the rooming house will have no upper occupancy limit, being required to provide only 50 square feet of bedroom space for each occupant. Some county jails offer more room than this. Even worse, the rooming house need not have a stove or a refrigerator for its occupants, as the proposed ordinance requires only a communal place for preparation of food. A single hot plate in a cramped room meets the new requirement.
This rooming house ordinance encourages overcrowding and invites tenants to set up their own cooking facilities in their rooms. Thus, it creates an obvious fire hazard and a stampede of too many people for the exits once a fire starts. Ironically, the ordinance is alleged to be designed to improve fire safety. It doesn’t.
Voters have repeatedly asked the Town Council to set upper occupancy limits, require adequate kitchen facilities and limit rooming houses to commercial districts only where town water and sewer services are available, fire protection is close by and the hotels at which the tenants work are an easy walk away. Ideally, large hotels that expand or are built could be required to provide on-site housing for staff. Each one of these sensible suggestions has been rejected by the council without any reasons given.
The worst aspect of the proposed ordinance is that the amnestied rooming houses can be licensed and enlarged anywhere in town, creating a burden on quiet residential areas but a benefit for the large hotels that have, until now, operated these rooming houses in violation of the law. Affordable middle-class housing will suffer, and the character of these residential neighborhoods will be forever changed by the introduction of these unlimited commercial ventures.
The third change involves a similar invasion of residential neighborhoods by commercial ventures, in this case sheltered group homes. Voters have asked the council why group homes will be allowed anywhere in town, rather than in designated commercial areas. No councilor has answered that question.
The stated reason for allowing sheltered group homes is to make sure that the YWCA is not treated as a rooming house. I have gently told the council that the YWCA is grandfathered from any current zoning limits for having no more than five unrelated people in the same building. That informal legal advice has produced no change whatsoever, and the council still wishes to legalize sheltered group homes everywhere in town.
Voting down these three ordinance changes will preserve the Bar Harbor we know and love.
Arthur Greif lives in Bar Harbor and practices law in Bangor. On one occasion, he served as legal counsel for the town of Bar Harbor.