Proposed Changes Could Increase Development in Bar Harbor

Planning Board holds public hearings on four potential land use ordinance changes

BAR HARBOR—At the beginning of the Bar Harbor Planning Board’s meeting, Chair Millard Dority ran through a list of housing strategies from the Housing Policy Framework, which was passed in 2019 by the Town Council.

Develop short-term rental restrictions?

“That has been done,” he said.

Develop zoning for employee housing?

“That has been done,” he said.

Develop housing needs assessment and action plan.

That will be unveiled on Wednesday, Town Planner Michele Gagnon said.

Identify zoning barriers to housing?

We’re working on number four now, he said as the board began public hearings for four draft warrant articles on changes to the Land Use Ordinance, which is the ordinance that governs the development and zones in Bar Harbor. The next step for these four draft measures is for the Town Council to hold public hearings to accept or reject the final amendments for the warrant for the June 13, 2023 Annual Town Meeting. Then the proposals would come back to the planning board to make a recommendation for adoption or not. That recommendation goes on the warrant as well so that voters can see it at the June annual meeting. At that time the changes will be in the hands of Bar Harbor voters.


Double Setback Distances

Shall an ordinance, dated December 8, 2022, and entitled “An amendment to remove the double setback distances” be enacted?

“The recommendation is to strike that entire section,” Dority said.

Setbacks limit how close structures can be built to the edge of a property or a road or wetland or septic system or shoreland. The distances vary according to structure type and zone. This specific change would be the setback for two buildings in a subdivision where there are no lots.

Code Enforcement Angela Chamberlain explained,

“This section requires that buildings located in a subdivision where no lots are created must be configured and located in such a manner that the distance between them is equal to twice the setback distance, depending on the location of the buildings.  For example, if two buildings face each other in a district where the front setback is 75 feet, the buildings are required to be located no less than twice that distance from one another, which would result in the two buildings being 150 feet apart.  This requirement greatly reduces a property owner’s ability to build the maximum number of units that would otherwise be allowed once these setback distances are applied to the buildings, in addition to the normal setback requirements and other dimensional standards.  This amendment proposes to remove this section entirely.”

It reduces the property owner’s ability to build the maximum number of units in that lot.

During the public hearing portion, Patricia Samuel said, “I am delighted to hear it.”

She referenced a housing proposal many years ago where “there was a great hue and cry of neighbors being too close together.” The whole plan, she said, was thrown out the window.

She said she was glad that Bar Harbor was becoming more sensible.

Floor Area Ratio

Shall an ordinance, dated December 8, 2022, and entitled “An amendment to remove the Floor Area Ratio requirement” be enacted?

Chamberlain explained to the board,

“Floor area ratio is a standard that is applicable in only one of our 40 zoning districts, Downtown Residential.  Floor area ratio is a dimensional representation of the gross floor area of a structure and is intended to control the overall bulk of a building, and is calculated using the floor area ratio of every principal building within 300 feet of a proposed building.  This calculation changes every single time a building is demolished, constructed, or added on to. 

“As a result, the FAR standard is not a fixed standard but one which is constantly changing, meaning a property owner cannot rely on a set dimensional requirement like setback distances or lot coverage standards. 

“The ordinance already controls the height of buildings, setbacks, and lot coverage.  This standard is fairly cumbersome to calculate, one needs to manually compare the lot size of every single lot within 300 feet of a proposed development, then calculate the gross floor area of each principal building on each lot (gross floor area is the sum of the gross horizontal areas of all enclosed floors of a building, excluding basements, areas beyond exterior walls, and any space with a floor to ceiling height of less than six feet and six inches).  Once the floor area ratio has been established for every lot within 300 feet of the development, all those numbers need to be calculated to establish both the mean and median values and whichever is the larger of the two is the FAR applied to the proposed project.  Simple, right? 

“I cannot think of a single instance where this FAR standard, required in only one district, has served the purpose of controlling bulk that isn’t already met through the other dimensional standard requirements. This amendment will remove the FAR requirement and all references to it.”

Chamberlain explained that it’s a standard that’s applicable only in downtown residential. It’s intended to control the overall bulk of a building and uses the ratio in every building nearby. It’s a constantly changing standard because other buildings may be demolished or built.

Samuel asked what kind of housing the board would like to try to encourage by removing the standard and said, “I thought it was kind of a wacky thing when it was enacted.”

“It’s just another bureaucratic impediment” to development, member Earl Brechlin said, giving the example of a lot owner’s neighbor having two outhouses and a garage, that lot owner would only be able to build a bungalow on their own lot because of the small sizes of the neighbor’s structures.

Former Planning Board member and real estate broker Erica Brooks said, “I’m very supportive of this. I’ve hated the floor-area ratio for years.” She said that as a real estate agent, it wasted time of staff and others.

Town Councilor Erin Cough was also in favor of the change. “One of the things that these kind of ordinances really restrict in Bar Harbor is mixed use,” she said. One of the ways a village thrives and lives is through the mixed uses of spaces and property, she said.

“It’s usually utilized on a lot, not on a district-wide basis, but that’s not how it’s done in Bar Harbor,” Gagnon said. What people could do on their lots became contingent on what was happening next door. It’s not a confidence building standard in the ordinance, she said.

“It is usually seen as a way to control density and lot coverage,” she added, but Bar Harbor already has lot coverage standards.

“It’s in the council’s hands now,” Dority said.

Conversion to Multifamily Use

Shall an ordinance, dated December 8, 2022, and entitled “An amendment to remove the Conversion to Multifamily Use Requirements” be enacted?

According to the planning department, this piece of the Land Use Ordinance is more restrictive than the adopted building code. Chamberlain explained,

“This provision requires that the conversion of an existing building into multifamily dwelling units (three or more units) must meet certain minimum size standards which are not required of construction of NEW multifamily dwelling units.  These provisions include the requirement that each dwelling unit be at least 500 square feet.  This is not only already addressed by the locally adopted building code which dictates the size and space requirements for dwelling units, but is actually more restrictive than the adopted building codes.  There are other additional requirements that already addressed in other areas of the Land Use Ordinance like parking requirements and plan review.  This amendment proposes to remove the entire section on ‘conversion to multifamily use.’”

Samuel asked again what kind of housing it was trying to encourage.

Board Secretary Elissa Chesler said that all the amendments they were discussing allow more infill development and create a greater variety of housing in concert with other housing policy changes.

“It’s really a combined effort,” Dority said, adding there are other changes in the works.

Gagnon said we’re looking to provide equity between what the town would require of a new structure and what is required for an already existing structure, and the question for this change would be: why be more stringent for a structure that already exists especially when building a new structure rather than converting it is more costly?

Underground Utilities

Shall an ordinance, dated December 8, 2022, and entitled “An amendment to remove the requirement that all utilities be installed underground” be enacted?

Brechlin said that he knows there is sentiment that underground utilities might lessen power outages in storms like the one on December 23. Two people wrote in comments echoing that sentiment, Dority said. There was also a great deal of talk on social media about it following the storm.

They are more difficult to fix and rectify if there is major damage, Brechlin said.

Gagnon said that this is a standard that is mostly modified in planning board reviews already. It also adds additional cost to people developing. Gagnon said anecdotally that her home has underground wires but they had no power for three days after the last storm. The grid itself is not underground.

Chamberlain explained,

“The LUO requires that all site plan and subdivision projects install their utilities underground.  Typical issues with installing utilities underground is the prevalence of ledge in the area which requires blasting, and the large of amount of land that is considered sensitive, like wetlands.  In most cases, an applicant is encouraged to avoid disturbing sensitive areas to the greatest extent possible, and installing overhead utilities is one way to accomplish that.  The reality is, the installation of underground utilities drives the cost of development up which then gets passed on to the consumer.  If we are committed to creating opportunities for reasonably priced housing, we need to find ways to reduce requirements that make the cost of development out of reach.  With that said, the removal of this requirement does not mean that a developer cannot choose to install their utilities underground, it simply wouldn’t be mandatory anymore.”

HAMILTON HILL—Lot line shift

Scott Henggeler and Melisa Rowland requested to shift a lot line in an approved subdivision. Because there has been more than one minor change in less than three years, the town code requires the Planning Board to know about this request. They want a path that goes around the structure and that impacts the setback, which makes them have to ask for a lot line change because the path counts as a structure.  The couple owns both lots.

The board unanimously decided it was fine for the project to go to the planning department and not the board. If the request had to go to the board, it would require three meetings and a site visit. The abutters are still notified and able to comment when the planning staff handle it instead.


Assistant Planner Steve Fuller is working on an electronic submittal process and should have it done for the board’s February meeting. It would then have to be forwarded to the Town Council for approval.


Two sets of data are being analyzed from the input from community forums, Chesler said, and the Housing Survey data should be available for them next week.

“Ten years in municipal time goes really fast,” Gagnon said. “Housing is intrinsically related to our economic prosperity.” She said the conversation that starts next Wednesday will be truly important. This is when the Comprehensive Planning Committee will discuss the data gleaned from the housing survey.


Board member Joseph Cough gave a heartfelt thanks to Assistant Planner Steve Fuller’s work for the board and town.

“When we get on the planning board sometimes we still have a tougher way to fight through the language of the LUO. You give it in a real straightforward presentation,” Cough said.

Fuller’s straight-forward verbiage is appreciated, he said.

“I have to thank you as I’ve transitioned through my sight (issues). You’ve been on it and I certainly appreciate it from a personal standpoint,” Cough said.  

Dority echoed Cough’s statements. “Thank you for all the help you’ve given to me. You’ve always been a pleasure to deal with.”

Gagnon said she had a conversation with Fuller’s new boss. “I stole him once. They stole him back.” Maybe, she said, they can steal him away again. Fuller did not respond to a request to publicly state his new job prior to press time. His Apollo and LinkedIn both say that he is a staff planner for the city of Ellsworth. Those may not have been updated. Prior to his time at Ellsworth, he worked as a reporter for the Ellsworth American.



To watch the meeting

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