August 25, 2019
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Despite housing crunch, Bar Harbor rejects employee dormitories

Bill Trotter | BDN
Bill Trotter | BDN
The Bar Harbor Municipal Building on Cottage Street.

Councilors in Bar Harbor rejected a proposal Tuesday night that would have allowed businesses to build dormitory-style housing for their employees in town, killing a measure meant to address one aspect of a local affordable housing shortage.

Town officials had drafted the proposal to allow dorm-style housing for employees in certain parts of town. But the council’s decision Tuesday not to schedule a public hearing on the proposal means there will be no such proposal for voters to consider on the ballot in November. If town officials draft a new proposal for allowing employee dorms, the earliest it would be submitted to voters for approval would be June 2020.

“We killed it,” Councilor Gary Friedmann said of the proposal, which the council rejected in a 2-4 vote.

Friedmann, who has been a vocal proponent of addressing what he and others have called a local affordable housing crisis, urged his fellow councilors after the vote to support having town staff continue draft another proposal that voters might consider next summer.

“It’s possible nothing would happen” unless the council directs staff to continue working on the issue, he said. “We need to have something to discuss.”

Addressing the town’s severe shortage of affordable housing has been a priority for the elected council for the past year, and has resulted in the town taking steps to regulate the practice of houses being rented out by the week during tourist season. Millions of people visit Acadia National Park every summer and fall, and many property owners can make more money from vacation rental income than by renting out properties on an annual basis to local residents. The shortage makes it more difficult for both year-round and seasonal employees of Bar Harbor businesses to find housing close to work.

Some employers — most notably hotel firms — have responded by buying up local houses and apartment complexes for their seasonal employees, which further constrains the housing market for year-round residents.

Two councilors who voted Tuesday against the employee dorm proposal said they opposed it because they thought it would represent a “Band-Aid” measure that would benefit a small minority of people. The town needs to come up with a comprehensive approach to address the issue of affordable housing instead of piecemeal proposals that continue to make the town’s zoning rules overly complex and unwieldy.

Without going into detail, Councilor Erin Cough said Tuesday that she voted against the proposal — which some residents had criticized because it would have allowed rooming houses and workforce dormitories in Bar Harbor’s downtown — because there were “big holes” in it. She added that she supports the concept of allowing employers to build housing specifically for their workers, but that any such proposal should be part of a comprehensive overhaul of the town’s zoning rules.

Too often, she said, changes are proposed in response to specific lobbying efforts by people with a narrow interest, which has the effect of just adding layer upon layer to zoning rules without making them more consistent, sensible, and user-friendly.

“I don’t think that is a way to plan,” Cough said.

Jeff Dobbs, the council’s newly elected chairman, also opposed the measure. He said the town should do what it can to address the town’s housing shortage, but that crafting piecemeal solutions was the wrong way to go about it.

“This is something the council has been wrestling with for 33 years,” Dobbs said. “It sounds like multiple band-aids again.”

The council did vote to support a separate measure that, if approved by voters in November, would allow local homeowners to rent out rooms in their dwellings for between five and 30 days at a time — which, town officials have conceded, many people have been doing for years. The council supported that proposal by a 5-1 vote, with Cough the lone dissenter.

A public hearing on that proposal will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 20.

 



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