Public Hearing for School Bond Elicits Impassioned Pleas. Proposed Dog Park Update
BAR HARBOR—Sometimes history and safety might not mix, and that’s become a conundrum for some owners of historic properties who have short-term rentals. Short-term rentals have to be inspected and conform to certain fire-safety codes. Historic properties also have to conform to those codes.
Throughout the year, short-term rental owners have been hiring contractors or doing the work themselves. One of the more difficult things for many of Bar Harbor’s older housing stock, not just historic homes, has been making sure that there is enough head height on staircases and also ensuring that the windows have appropriate egress as a second way out of a room in case of fire. The costs for property owners to make these changes can be over $10,000.
After hearing many people’s concern as the May 31 deadline to pass inspection approaches, during the May 17 town council meeting, Councilor Erin Cough moved to amend the agenda for a discussion of STR licensing for historic homes. There was no discussion. It was unanimously approved and added to the agenda.
Cough, who is also the director of the Bar Harbor Historical Society, had hoped to propose a 90-day extension for properties on the town’s appendix a of the town’s land use ordinance (historic properties and places) or the National Register of Historic Buildings so that the council, the town lawyer, and staff could look at if there could be tweaks to the short-term rental licensing ordinance for those properties.
One of the main points that Cough brought up was that in order to pass the town’s code, there must be an egress through windows (or a sprinkler system or a door that leads to the outside) for sleeping areas. That window egress must have a 5.7 square foot opening. Some of the historical properties do not have this and because of contractor delays, building material delays, and other issues, property owners have said that they can’t change the windows out by the May 31 deadline for this year’s inspections. She said without the extension a lot of the historical properties will lose their short-term rental licenses.
“If an egress is so wide, but it’s an inch short, what’s being asked now is for the historic property owners to replace those windows and enlarge the opening,” Cough said. “That changes the façade of the building, which potentially is why it was registered to begin with.”
There are areas of the NFPA, which the town uses to dictate the changes needed for life-safety issues on short-term rentals that do allow for historic properties depending on the authority adjudicating the license.
When there are changes to the façade of a historic building, it potentially makes it so those buildings lose those historic designations and those designations, she said, are hard to get, and to lose those designations is heartbreaking.
Stephen Wagner, the town’s attorney, said he received Cough’s email as he was driving in to the meeting. He didn’t believe that the council had the authority to extend the May 31 deadline.
The deadline is established by the Land Use Ordinance and it’s pretty black and white there, he said. “You’d have to go through the land use ordinance amendment process.”
He said the council could potentially create an emergency ordinance that would put in an exemption that dealt with the life safety code for historic properties. This could then be repealed once a more comprehensive amendment was created. It would have to be considered an emergency ordinance and the council would have to have a special meeting. He said that he knows that there have been a number of short-term-rental owners who have had extenuating circumstances and both town staff and the Board of Appeals have had to deny those appeals.
Out-going Councilor Jill Goldthwait said. “We could have a list of a thousand reasons about why someone hasn’t met a deadline.”
However, she said there’s a non-winterized home in her own neighborhood that had an issue with the size of the windows. The caretaker ordered windows in October. The windows were ready in November. However, the windows were not the right size and the contractor had to enlarge the window openings in the whole house.
Code Enforcement Officer Angela Chamberlain said that this was disheartening to hear of changes at the eleventh hour in the process. She said notices were sent to short-term-rental owners in December 2021 and reminder notices in August 2022.
“I feel like we’ve made good faith efforts to do the right thing, to educate them, to inform them.” She said, ““At the end of the day, this is about protecting the health, safety and welfare of the occupants. No matter what the outside of the house looks like, that’s what it boils down to. If something happens and someone dies, are we OK with that because the house was historic?”
Fire Chief Matt Bartlett agreed, saying, “In a smoky environment, people have to have the easiest way out of their home.” The egress window is the secondary means of escape out of the room. Putting a sprinkler system in a residence, he said, can eradicate the egress window requirements.
Chamberlain said they knew this year would be tough and that people might not pass. She said they have had historic homes that passed. The council took no action on the issue.
Chamberlain wrote a memo to the councilors as well, which was not dispersed in the public packet because she only learned about the request on the day of the meeting. That memo is below.
Later in the meeting, during councilors’ comments, Cough said that she wanted to express her profound disappointment about the history that Bar Harbor could be losing because of the failure to extend short-term-rental permit approvals for historic properties for 90 more days, “History in town is not black and white and it’s not easily dismissed.”
MDI YMCA RV SEWER HOOK-UP APPROVED
The consent agenda included signing the town meeting notice. Minutes were approved for the May 1 and 2 meetings. The council also unanimously approved taxi license renewals for Point 2 Point Taxi, MDI Tours, Y and P Taxi Service, Oli’s Trolley, and Acadia National Park Tours.
The town also approved multiple sewer connection permits. One was for 2 Lookout Point Road, and the second was for the YMCA’s sewer hook-up for an RV at 21 Park Street. The RV hookup solicited no discussion and has been approved by Chamberlain.
RVs have historically not been approved in the downtown compound. There was no chance for public abutter comment except at a Design Review Board meeting, which was not about the RV itself, but about the hookups. During an earlier Town Council meeting, councilors said there are no immediate neighbors to the site. There are.
SPECIAL AMUSEMENT PERMITS
Special amusements were unanimously approved for:
1. The Lompoc Café, 36 Rodick Street—Class 3ad (three or more musicians with mechanical amplification and dancing)
2. The Travelin Lobster, 1569 State Highway 102—revised renewal of a Class 1ao (single musician with outdoor mechanical amplification restricted to amplified acoustic instruments and vocal microphones).
Goldthwait said that she had created a potential revision for the special amusement permit application procedure for the council to peruse at a future date.
LAND USE BOND PUBLIC HEARINGS
ARTICLE 2 BOND—CONNERS EMERSON REBUILD
During the public hearing for a new elementary school, School Board Chair Lilea Simis explained again that she and others are fundraising to help decrease the taxpayers’ burden of the $58 million bond for rebuilding the badly ailing school buildings. “We’re talking about all kinds of creative ways to help offset this $58 million.”
She stressed that the people who may give money want to know that the town supports it. “I’m really concerned about how we put ourselves forward, how the world perceives what I think is the best investment we can make, which is our children.”
School board member Robin Sue Tapley said, “This is a dire community issue at this point. It’s falling apart. It’s sinking. It’s busting through the seams.” She said if the bond doesn’t pass, the town will spend a lot more than the rebuild’s current $58 million estimate. “This school will never ever in this state become close to energy efficiency,” she said and stressed that if the building failed before a new school building was built that “there isn’t another building in our town that we can move our kids to.”
Nor, she said, is there another school in the district. A reorganization of the district with some consolidation of schools will likely take years. “And if it does happen, Bar Harbor will still need a school,” she said.
Joy O’Shaughnessy said that “the social safety nets have been unravelling for years.” Schools have been picking up the slack as those nets unravel.
“We are far beyond the years of the one room schoolhouse. We have administrators and teachers working in closets,” she said of the current state of the building, which has increased special education needs as well as other educational needs to help deal with society’s unravelling social safety nets. The safety of the school and it’s lack of space to provide those needs concerned her. “Parents are kissing their children and sending them to school each morning” and sending them into environments that they themselves wouldn’t work in, she said. She added that it was the town’s turn to have the foresight to plan for the future.
The school board’s Vice Chair Marie Yarborough, said, “We need a new school. I want to stop putting money into a broken building.”
She said that with parking revenue, private donations, and the bond advisor’s help, the impact to the taxpayer will be far less. The school’s roof, fire alarms, heating systems, electrical systems are all reaching end of life, she said, and even fixed, the building won’t be suitable. “We will still have a building where teachers teach children in closets.”
She said that even with the systems fixed, children will be moving across an open campus, which is a safety issue. Information on the bond and project is here.
PUBLIC HEARINGS ON LAND USE ORDINANCE AMENDMENTS
There was no public comment on the double setback distances, floor area ratio, conversion to multifamily use or underground utilities proposed amendments.
ASIAN AMERICAN PACIFIC ISLANDER MONTH
Simonette Libby requested that the town recognize May as Asian American Pacific Islander Month. Councilor Jill Goldthwait said she supported the request, and referenced her time in the Peace Corps in the late 1960s when she was declared an honorary Pacific Islander. She said that her time there transformed her view of the world.
It was unanimously declared that May would be recognized as Asian American Pacific Islander Month.
UTILITY LOCATION PERMIT APPLICATION
Versant requested a new pole at the southwest corner of what is colloquially known as the Casino Lot and which would be on the town owned paid parking lot. Public Works Director Bethany Leavitt explained that the pole is needed to anchor the existing system from Versant’s perspective.
CRUISESHIP TENDERING AND NO IDLING ORDINANCE
Councilor Gary Friedmann had asked that Police Chief Jim Willis and Harbormaster Chris Wharff come to the council to discuss cruise ship tenders coming in or dropping off passengers and not shutting off their engines when disembarking passengers and the health and aesthetic detriment of the tender’s fumes.
“We do have a no idling ordinance in the downtown ordinance,” he said.
Staying in gear is called clutching, Harbormaster Chris Wharff said. He later called the gear shift a clutch ahead and said that a tender unloading is not a stable platform and it’s a safety and liability issue for the dock and ship, which is why they do the clutch-ahead maneuver. If it is a flat calm day, which is unusual, it’s unnecessary, and it’s only necessary during the loading and unloading process, he said.
According to Wharff, the tenders stay running at the dock and that it’s more harmful for the motor, dock, and environment to start and stop the engines. They run more efficiently if they are idled.
“There’s a lot of movement down there and it’s really unsafe,” Wharff said about the disembarkation process.
“We have a lot of concern about the impact of cruise ships obviously,” Friedmann said. “Those diesel fumes are toxic, basically.”
The tendering policy procedure is controlled by the corporations that own the tenders, Wharff said and added that the tenders’ prop wash and diesel fumes are addressed on a daily basis.
Vice Chair Matt Hochman asked if repairs to the breakwater, which are years off, would help calm the seas. Wharff said it should help a bit depending on the wind direction and tides.
“Bar Harbor is not the most boat friendly place to operate passenger vessels,” Wharff said.
LOADING ZONE REQUEST ON COTTAGE STREET
Willis also spoke at the meeting about the loading zone and curb cut requests and process. The ordinance that exists says that the police chief can make recommendations for new loading zones. He said that in his 9.5 years here, he hasn’t been asked to do so. He said he felt uncomfortable making a recommendation for the site of a new lodging establishment on Cottage Street because of a lack of a process or system for those requests. He said he felt similarly about curb cuts, loading zones, road openings, and road closures.
Rather than having them happen “willy-nilly” and not in consultation with the police and public works department, he’d like a bit more of a formalized process and communication.
Former Councilor Jeff Dobbs said during his days as chairman of the Parking Committee, the committee would make those decisions and then make recommendations to council. When he was on the committee, he said, part of the job was to lay out the loading zones. They talked to drivers and store owners and laid the loading zones out for what made sense to the town. Dobbs talked about the many discretionary curb cuts the committee made. They should be beneficial to everyone, Dobbs said.
Nina Barufaldi St. Germain said the lodging owners of the large bed and breakfast on Cottage Street are no longer asking for a curb cut. It would be 15-minute spots or yellow curbing, she said. She’s hoping to create a spot for people to come and go from in order to reduce congestion. It is proposed as a public loading zone.
The council and chief agreed that they would start to pursue procedure and policy about such requests and hopefully have some in place prior to the lodging’s scheduled opening in spring 2024.
COMPREHENSIVE PLAN UPDATE
Gilbert mentioned the four comprehensive planning forums next week and encouraged the public to attend. The sessions are open to non-residents as well.
Annlinn Kruger spoke toward an accounting of the former town manager for his past behavior in regard to her chalk messages around town about googling Leonard Leo, a conservative legal activist. She said she would like to share the council’s response to her requests and was then silent at the podium. She was the only member of the public to comment at the open public comment time at the beginning of the meeting.
TOWN MANAGER COMMENTS
Gilbert thanked Goldthwait for the many years she’s spent serving the community. Councilor Joe Minutolo said that she brought a lot of things to the table and she will be missed. Cough thanked her for wading into the turbulent waters with the rest of the council.
Gilbert also thanked Clark Stivers for stepping up and filling the role of Councilor Dobbs. Goldthwait called him an anchor to windward.
Paid parking began yesterday. All permits can be applied for via the town website.
DOG PARK UPDATE
Friends of Bar Harbor Dog Park talked about preliminary costs and plans of the park, Gilbert told councilors. “There was a lot of conversation,” she said. “It’s not a done deal at this point.” Even if the Parks and Recreation Committee recommends a park, it still comes to the Town Council.
Cough said that she wanted to support the school bond and thank the other council candidates for the three-year term for participating in the League of Women Voters forum and the Town Hill Village Improvement Society debate on Wednesday.
Friedmann asked if anyone knew what the schedule was for candidate interviews for town manager. This is still being hammered out but should be next week. He also thanked Gilbert for her service as interim town manager. He also said that the cartoon in the recent Islander talked about the council race being a battle for the soul of Bar Harbor. He said it seemed to indicate a lack of soul in the council, which he said the council had plenty of.
Stivers said it hadn’t been much of a chore filling the remainder of Councilor Jeff Dobbs’ term, but it was a pleasure serving with everyone. “This was easy. It was a walk in a park,” he said. “So, there’s no place like Bar Harbor in the summer. Let’s all have a good time.”
Hochman said that they are all there for the same purpose: to make Bar Harbor better. He’s never doubted that any of the councilors, candidates, or people speaking at the podium had that same goal in mind. “There is a passion for what we believe in in this time,” he said.
Councilor Goldthwait who is not running for re-election ended her comments with “Goldthwait out.”
Disclosure: I am a neighbor of the MDI YMCA.
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