May 31, 2020
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As applications for vacation rentals surge, Bar Harbor rejects a moratorium

Bill Trotter | BDN
Bill Trotter | BDN
The Bar Harbor Municipal Building on Cottage Street, July 17, 2018.

Bar Harbor town employees are receiving a flood of vacation rental permit applications in advance of the town’s busy summer tourist season, but the town will not enact a moratorium to give staff time to catch up with the backlog.

The deluge of applications prompted a surprise request from town staff late last week for an emergency 60-day moratorium on new applications for vacation rental properties where the owner does not live on site. The fire department has to conduct site visits to make sure the rental properties meet safety codes, and the code enforcement office has to process permit requests, but the applications have been coming in too fast for staff to get a handle on turning them around.

Just last Friday — when people found out about the proposed moratorium — the town received 73 applications for new vacation rental permits, not including renewals for permits issued last year, according to Angela Chamberlain, the town’s code enforcement officer. Those have been added to the stack of nearly 140 pending applications the town already had, she added. In 2018, the town issued nearly 80 new permits after having issued roughly 20 a year from 2012 through 2017.

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The Bar Harbor Town Council on Tuesday unanimously rejected the moratorium proposal, however, after an overflow crowd showed up at the council meeting to voice their concerns about enacting a moratorium at the same time that many are trying to get their properties ready to rent out for the approaching summer season.

“It is very upsetting [the moratorium request] has been dropped like a bomb on us,” local resident Kelly Dickson told the council.

Since last fall, Bar Harbor officials have set their sights on trying to address the town’s perennial shortage of affordable housing by reining in the practice of renting out houses for a few days at a time. The prevalence of vacation rental properties in Bar Harbor, which each summer and fall draws millions of tourists who come to enjoy the scenery and to visit Acadia National Park, has curtailed the supply of year-round housing and has inflated housing costs beyond what many local would-be residents can afford, according to some.

“We do have a real problem in this town,” Gary Friedmann, chairman of the town council, said Tuesday.

Friedmann said when he and his wife bought their house in the 1980s, there were kids who lived and played in the neighborhood and rode bikes down their street. Now, because so many of the houses are rented by the week in the summer and are vacant the rest of the year, “when we walk down the street in the winter, it’s dark,” he added.

Employers in the area such as The Jackson Laboratory, Acadia National Park and others have said that the lack of affordable housing for their employees, many of whom are seasonal or who earn a starting-level wage, is a major hurdle to their ability to fill jobs.

According to Bar Harbor officials, state housing statistics show that the current median price of a home in town is $317,000, which is $133,000 more than what someone earning the local median income of $53,000 a year can afford.

Many residents who rent out their homes say the practice is necessary for them to be able to pay their mortgages and to live in Bar Harbor, which is a reason why the moratorium would have applied only to what the town would call “non-hosted” rentals.

Town officials have expressed an interest in making a distinction between property owners who rent out a portion of their primary residence and those who live off premises and essentially are using one or more houses to run a lodging business. Currently the town does not make a distinction between these two types of vacation rentals in its land use ordinance.

Councilor Paul Paradis, in voicing opposition to the proposed moratorium, said Tuesday that the issue of affordable housing in Bar Harbor extends beyond vacation rentals. He said a reduction in the town’s minimum lot size would help encourage housing development in town, and that the town should allow the development of dormitories so employers — hotel firms in particular — can build efficient housing units for their employees instead of having to buy up existing houses and apartment complexes that end up being occupied for only half the year.

“The town created this problem,” Paradis said, “and quite honestly, I don’t think a moratorium solves it.”


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