Why Northeast Harbor?
By Kathy Miller
“The high cost for housing is currently one of the primary driving forces behind many of the issues facing the town of Mount Desert. An appropriate balance of housing should be sought after to support a healthy economy, and it should be kept affordable in order to avoid displacing community members to outlying areas. Housing should be developed in a way that improves connections between and among community members to create vibrant year-round villages. It should not degrade or exhaust the natural resources that are integral to the success of this community, such as fragmenting or destroying important wildlife habitat, polluting or exhausting water supplies, or negatively impacting either natural or built scenic resources.”
The paragraph above was taken directly from the Town’s Comprehensive Plan and is the foundation of Mount Desert 365’s mission and purpose – To foster a sustainable year-round community while preserving its natural environment. Our approach to achieving our mission runs along parallel tracks: supporting local businesses and creating affordable year-round housing opportunities to restore the year-round population. The narrative above is also the reason we are focusing our early efforts in the village of Northeast Harbor.
We trust that everyone reading this will appreciate the growing crisis we all face with the lack of housing affordable to the year-round residents who are essential to keeping our communities intact – municipal and public safety workers, medical staff, teachers, bank tellers, restaurant staff, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and so many more. In fact, this topic is so essential that the Town’s Economic Development Committee has rallied seven other Island institutions to meet and work together toward solutions on this growing housing dilemma. To date, our Town plus the local Chamber of Commerce, Island Housing Trust, Mount Desert 365, College of the Atlantic, Friends of Acadia, Acadia National Park, and the Summer Residents Association have gathered several times already and are planning for a larger and well-focused gathering over the winter to address both year-round and seasonal employee housing issues.
For our part, there are three compelling reasons we are focusing our efforts on creating housing here in Northeast Harbor: 1) proximity to local businesses; 2) access to utilities; and 3) preservation of natural areas and undeveloped land.
Northeast Harbor is the commercial and municipal center of the Town with the greatest concentration of storefront businesses. Having more people living here will support the existing businesses in the quiet season, and that may make the difference in keeping businesses open. It may also make the difference in attracting the businesses many people have told us they want.
Access to utilities is the second reason. It will save money in developing the properties where water, sewer, and power are already in place, and most importantly eliminate the environmental disruption of digging wells and installing septic systems. To address environmental concerns, the Comp Plan recommended areas for growth lie primarily in the village areas, and we are following that guidance.
These housing issues have been a concern for decades, and Island Housing Trust continues to make real headway. But the need is still great, and the pandemic and the high financial returns of short-term rentals have only exacerbated the problem. We know that businesses large and small, private and public, are experiencing hiring issues due to the year-round housing shortage. While we may not have homeless people sleeping on the streets as in many large cities, we do know of individuals and families pushed out of their rentals in the spring, living in their cars to finish up the school year, or until their rental becomes available in mid-fall.
We also know that MDI is not the only place experiencing these dire housing issues. On September 25th the New York Times ran an article titled Whatever Happened to the Starter Home? pointing out communities all over the country with similar issues. It included this paragraph: “The starter home has always done a lot of work. It builds equity, creates stability, gives shelter from landlords and inflation. It has been an incubator of small businesses and community institutions like day care centers.” What we are working to create may be starter homes or forever homes, but the outcomes of equity, stability, shelter, and incubation still apply.
Market forces will not fix our housing problem, which is reaching a crisis level. It needs an intervention and a commitment to move forward with plans that will relieve the stress for the long haul while maintaining the character of the Town we all love.
We hope to have your support as we move forward with others working on the same issue. Let’s bring about real and lasting change together.