Proposed Changes Could Increase Housing Development in Bar Harbor

Town Council agrees to hold public hearing on potential land use ordinance changes

BAR HARBOR—In four separate unanimous votes, the Bar Harbor Town Council moved four potential land use amendments dealing with rules that regulate small aspects of development and housing to a public hearing, which is the next step legally necessary for the Planning Department-led proposals to be voted on at the June 23, 2023 Annual Town Meeting. After the council’s public hearings and vote to recommend to accept or reject the amendments, the proposals go back to the Planning Board to make a recommendation to adopt or not.

The Planning Board held public hearings on the potential changes earlier in January. The changes were presented by Code Enforcement Officer Angela Chamberlain. 


Double Setback Distances

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

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.

Floor Area Ratio

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

According to Chamberlain,

“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.”

This is 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 to determine that overall bulk. It’s a constantly changing standard because other buildings may be demolished or built.

At the January Planning Board meeting, member Earl Brechlen said, “It’s just another bureaucratic impediment” to development, 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.

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.’”

At an earlier Planning Board meeting, 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?

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.”



To watch the meeting.

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