CAMDEN —The Camden Town Office and the Select Board have acknowledged for several years the deficit of workforce and affordable housing in Camden, as the hot real estate market raised the price tags on existing homes, and the available stock shrunk to almost nothing. (As of March 18, 2022, there were five active house listings and seven vacant parcels in Camden for sale).
It’s not a new issue, but the pandemic accelerated the rush on local housing purchases, as the entire state experienced a rush on real estate, and many from out of state bought houses in Camden as an investment, or safe haven.
Since last winter, the Camden Planning Board has been working on ordinance amendments to encourage multi-family and accessory dwellings.
On March 15, at a regularly scheduled meeting, the Select Board voted in favor of placing three ordinance amendments on the June Town Meeting warrant that would allow for increased density in certain municipal land use zones.
Camden’s Planning and Development Director Jeremy Martin told the board that the amendments were crafted at the direct of the public to, “address housing affordability.”
“It’s all over the comprehensive plan to look at housing,” he said.
The latest Camden Comprehensive Plan was approved by voters in 2017. In its section on housing, the comprehensive plan said: “Just as it was when the first Comprehensive Plan was adopted in 1992, the primary housing issue in Camden is affordability. Today, creating affordable housing is even more of a challenge.”
In the proposed 2022 land use ordinance changes, the town is asking voters to approve reducing lot size requirements and increasing density in specific zones.
One change includes eliminating requisite increases to a lot size in order to add a secondary dwelling. Another change reduces the minimum lot size for parcels without municipal sewer from 40,000 square feet to 20,000 square feet.
Changes also include increasing building lot coverage in some zones by 25 percent.
Stephanie Smith, a Camden citizen and a founder of the Midcoast Regional Housing Trust, supported the ordinance amendments.
“Our group has recently completed a regional housing needs assessment. We learned that 25 percent of the young teachers recruited by our school district turn down the job because they can’t find a place to live,” she said. “One-third of our housing units are now seasonally occupied and that proportion is growing more rapidly every year.”
Camden restaurateur and resident Josh Hixson told the board that a new employee at his restaurant could only find a place to live 45 minutes away from Camden.
Another employee, trying for months, came up from Boston, but there “nothing remotely close to here” in available homes.
“It used to be vast majority of workers lived in Camden,” said Hixson.
Camden citizen Beedy Parker said she appreciated of the effort to get more housing, but warned against adding increased impervious surfaces. She suggested addressing parking rules, noting, “we are trying to protect watersheds.”
Stephen Gold, a Camden resident, questioned whether the town had ordinance protections to prevent additional units from, “just becoming more rental Airbnbs.”
Martin responded that there is nothing specific in the proposed amendments to address those concerns, but added that under existing ordinance, adding accessory space already was allowed.
“I’ve looked at every lot in the village, and it’s remarkable that’s there a lot of lots they can already do this,” he said. “I’m not sure there s going to be a rush to do that.”
The conversation then edged into short term rental concerns, and the status of the existing short term rental ordinance that voters approved at the 2021 June Town Meeting.
That ordinance, attached to the town’s Police Ordinance, was an attempt to list un-hosted short term rentals and their location, as well as to determine whether they are investment properties, or owned by residents using homes as income boosters.
An Un-hosted Short-Term Rental, according to the town, is a “Short Term Rental where the owner(s) of the property do not reside on property where the Short-Term Rental is located; and it is not the owner(s) primary residence.
The goal was to require municipal registration by un-hosted short term rental owners.
But that ordinance, admitted Martin, at the March 15 meeting, was hard to enforce.
“We created an unenforceable ordinance,” said Town Manager Audra Caler, later in the meeting.
“We are not seeing massive conversion to short term rentals,” Martin said.
Gold said that there have been complaints of investors buying houses and converting them to rentals.
Martin said that in 2021, there were 380 short term rentals in Camden.
“As of last week, there were 194,” he said.
But some Select Board members were skeptical of that number, suggesting that the season had yet to pick up and listings had yet to be updated for the general public.
Board member Alison McKellar asked whether it would be possible, “to amend further to restrict from whatever is developed from becoming short term rentals.”
Board member Sophie Romano commented that a trade-off existed between legislation and, “actually enforcing it.”
McKellar likened the registration effort to that of enforcing unlicensed dogs.
She suggested creating a list.
“You start with every unlicensed dog,” McKellar said. “You chip away at it.”
Martin said he wanted to address rules governing accessory apartments and short term rentals for an ordinance to possibly appear before voters in November.
McKellar also raised the concern about increased impervious surfaces resulting from increased density, suggesting limitations.
“That’s a big undertaking, a big task, a multi-department task,” said Martin.
Caler said the zoning ordinance, “might not be the best place to address [it].”
Martin said the areas benefiting from the proposed amendments was not extensive.
“I don’t agree that the changes will facilitate a massive amount of impervious surface because [of]existing subdivision or shoreland zoning,” he said.
He said the planning office would have a conversation about impervious surfaces with the Camden Planning Board.
In the end, all the land use ordinance amendments were approved for the 2022 Town Meeting Warrant.
“It’s a good move forward, a good start,” said board member Marc Ratner.
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