Having taken steps to reduce cruise ship traffic and limit weekly vacation rentals, Bar Harbor now has another part of the tourism sector in its sights.
Town councilors are considering whether to temporarily ban lodging development while it gets a handle on how tourism is affecting the town. As Bar Harbor’s tourism industry has grown over the past few decades, other nearby towns such as Tremont and Lamoine have adopted similar temporary development bans in recent years to keep increased tourist traffic at bay.
They are not tourism centers like Bar Harbor. Such a ban would target a legacy industry in a way that no other major Maine town has tried. It is part of local efforts to strike a better balance between the demands of the tourism industry and the needs of local residents, though not all town officials are convinced that pausing new lodging is a good idea.
In the past five years, only 10 building permits have been issued for transient accommodation projects, Councilor Kyle Shank said at a Tuesday meeting, citing town data. A few of them were for renovations for existing businesses, resulting in only 52 new guest rooms or campsites approved since 2018, about 1 percent of roughly 5,000 total guest rooms and sites in town.
Singling out lodging such as hotel rooms or campgrounds does nothing to address the housing shortage or traffic congestion, Shank said. When considering short-term rentals, which would not be subject to the moratorium, the overall number of accommodations in Bar Harbor has gone down over the past five years because of restrictions the town already has, he said.
“It doesn’t make sense from the numbers,” he said.
Like Shank, councilors Earl Brechlin and Val Peacock have said they don’t think a pause on hotel development would really help. But councilors Matthew Hochman, Gary Friedmann and Maya Caines have said they support the idea, which would apply only to new proposals.
The town has taken steps to reduce cruise ship traffic and to limit the conversion of year-round homes into weekly vacation rental properties, but still has concerns about the shortage of affordable housing and seasonal traffic congestion.
Councilors have not yet voted on whether to adopt a temporary lodging development ban, but might do so sometime in the next month or so after its members discuss the idea more with town staff and members of the planning board.
Both supporters and detractors of Bar Harbor’s tourism industry also have questioned whether a temporary lodging development ban would really help. Such a moratorium would be “an exercise in concern or sensitivity signaling,” said Charles Sidman, a leading critic of the cruise ship industry and the author of a successful citizen’s initiative to reduce ship traffic.
The purpose of a moratorium would ostensibly be to give the town time to implement changes, Sidman said. But changes the town already is pursuing — such as updating the comprehensive plan, regulating and reducing the number of short-term vacation rentals, addressing inconsistencies in lodging regulations — won’t be achieved under a pause, he argued.
Some of the debate has been fueled by a 45-room bed and breakfast that is under construction on Cottage Street by hotelier Stephen Coston. He provides housing to 40 of his employees because he knows there isn’t enough on the island.
But he said there is no connection between rush-hour traffic congestion, which primarily affects local residents and workers, and hotel guests, who tend to be on the road at other times of day.
“This is a giant non-sequitur,” he said of the moratorium idea.
Friedmann insisted that the situation is urgent, and that the council should not just wait for the comprehensive plan committee to finish its work or for voters to decide next June whether to make changes to the town’s land use ordinance. Other measures need to be pursued to insulate residents from the downsides of tourism, and the sooner the better, he said.
“We’re not responding fast enough,” Friedmann said. “People are saying ‘there’s just too many people here. We can’t handle this anymore.’ This is not just my perception.”
Maine towns and cities often consider and implement temporary development bans when new types of development or land uses emerge, Kate Dufour, a lobbyist for the Maine Municipal Association, said, adding that phone towers, solar farms, and weekly vacation rentals have all been subject to local moratoriums in recent years.
Tourism has shaped Maine’s economy for 100 years, so moratoriums aimed at traditional lodging are rare, Dufour noted. But given Maine’s housing crisis, in which many towns are trying to balance development pressure with preserving affordable housing, it is not surprising that the impacts of hotels and campgrounds would come up in tourism areas.
“It’s all part of a larger discussion,” Dufour said.