Visitors gather at a waterfront park, Saturday, May 15, 2021, in Bar Harbor. Credit: Robert F. Buakty / AP

A nonprofit group is proposing to build 10 new residential properties in Bar Harbor near the causeway to Trenton to try to help with a perennial shortage of affordable year-round housing on Mount Desert Island.

Island Housing Trust has submitted plans to Bar Harbor’s planning board for approval to build a subdivision off Route 3 that would include six single-family homes and two duplexes, executive director Marla O’Byrne said Wednesday. To qualify as buyers for the housing, at least one person in each household must work on MDI, she said, and the houses must be occupied year-round and not sold or rented out to seasonal residents.

Housing prices are at a premium on Mount Desert Island, where local tourism industry employers often buy single-family homes and use them to house employees during the island’s busy tourist season, when millions of people visit Acadia National Park. The popularity of weekly vacation rentals on MDI also has caused home prices to climb, as investors buy up houses and factor lucrative weekly rental income into the prices they are willing to pay.

The chief operating officer of The Jackson Laboratory said in 2019 that finding affordable housing for employees was the top challenge facing the organization, which is based in Bar Harbor and is one of the region’s largest employers.

In 2019, median home prices on MDI ranged from $264,000 in Tremont to $483,000 in the town of Mount Desert, according to the Maine Housing Authority. The median home price for all of Hancock County that year was just shy of $230,000, while the affordable home price for the county’s median income was $205,000. More than half, or 55 percent, of the county’s households were unable to afford a median-priced home in 2019.

The Island Housing Trust development would occupy 8 acres of a 30-acre parcel, while another 12 acres would be set aside as open space. The trust would retain the remaining 10 acres. They could be developed, though O’Byrne said further development there is unlikely.

“It would be expensive because of wetlands and vernal pools” to build an access road to those other 10 acres, she said.

By setting aside 12 acres as open space, the trust can build 10 housing units on the 8-acre property. Without the open space designation, the trust would be limited to building nine units, she said.

The property abuts a second 30-acre parcel that includes Jones Marsh and is owned by Maine Coast Heritage Trust. The two organizations worked together to acquire all 60 acres in 2018 to preserve and protect the marsh and set aside the adjacent developable land for affordable housing.

O’Byrne said there will be set prices for the housing and duplexes, which will be subject to covenants for qualified buyers, but the trust hasn’t yet determined what the selling prices will be.

She said the housing trust hopes to get approval from the town to develop the subdivision this summer and to start work on developing the site this fall.

To help make housing affordable to people to work on MDI, the trust also is considering whether to partner with other entities in the island’s rental market, O’Byrne said. The demand for housing on MDI also has caused rents frequently to exceed what local workers can afford. The demand is highest during the tourist-heavy summer and fall months, but it has also been high during the COVID-19 pandemic as people from more urban centers have looked to live in less densely populated areas.

“Year-round rentals also are dwindling,” O’Byrne  said. “Such a partnership would expand year-round housing opportunities.”

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....