BELFAST — An upcoming joint City Council and Planning Board workshop prompted discussion amongst councilors regarding short-term rentals and land use amendments at the council’s Jan. 3 meeting.

“People can’t find a place to live in Belfast,” Councilor Mike Hurley said, “whether it’s inside the bypass or outside the bypass. I hear it from the hospital who says we hired a doctor but they couldn’t find a place to live, so they left. To me, this is a crisis.”

Hurley’s comment followed a report by Planning Director Bub Fournier and sparked discussion on housing and short-term rentals. In his report, Fournier outlined the amendment work done by the city and Planning Board, inside the bypass, between 2014 and 2019. Those amendments increased densities inside the bypass to 19 units per acre.

“This is how we facilitated the developments on White Street, and on Congress Street,” Fournier told  councilors, “but not a great amount of apartment or new dwelling units outside those programs.”

Fournier noted that since 2020 the council has supported increasing densities in outside rural and mixed-use zoning areas. In 2021, flex, or rental, housing became an issue in these areas.

Fournier was asking that councilors join the Planning Board in a work session to discuss amendments inside the bypass, short-term rentals and the airport overlay. He added that much of that work would center on the issue of flex housing, adding his office was gathering data on the inventory of short-term rental units in Belfast.

Councilor Paul Dean urged a lighter touch on any upcoming amendments to land use ordinances.

“It’s important to any changes we make in our land-use ordinances that we make it easier for things to happen. It’s really critical that the people that live in this city, stay here,” he said.

City Manager Erin Herbig said all three topics were broad and would require a great deal of information, study and resources.

“Housing is a big topic,” Herbig said. “While our ordinances are part of this discussion, there’s also funding, capital, cost of materials, cost of labor — there’s a lot to this conversation.”

Herbig added climate change and the city’s breakwater as other ongoing issues that require significant study and resources. She asked the council to consider another way of gathering and considering information.

“We don’t have a city committee that focuses on housing,” Herbig said. “While there is certainly value in getting the Planning Board and the council together for a conversation or a work session, imagine having a city committee that focused on that. I believe there is some value in having a conversation about our committee work and how we use it.”

Councilor Neal Harkness agreed, noting the council should start thinking with “21st century minds” in its approach to issues impacting Belfast’s long-term future.

“We don’t know what the new normal is,” Harness said. “We can’t make decisions based on assumptions.” He also supported keeping the mill rate in check to allow homeowners the ability to renovate with additional housing in mind.

Hurley supported the notion of a housing committee, but also noted a more immediate response to housing was necessary.

“There are things that the city has to do,” Hurley said. “I think between the Planning Board, the Planning Department and the council, we can come up with those things.”

Mayor Eric Sanders also supported the work of committees in city government.

“It takes a lot of work off the council to have a housing committee,” Sanders said. “(Committees) do a lot of work that we never do. If we can get that same sort of expertise on a committee for housing, it’s not a loss for us.”

Councilor will meet with the Planning Board to discuss the issues on Jan. 31.

In other business, the council accepted a grant from the Harold Alfond Foundation for use in training staff and department heads through the Maine Workforce Development Coalition. Councilors also approved expending $39,625 to replace 215 feet of sewer main on Union Street. The council also approved a draft lease for space for The Moody Dog’s picnic tables adjacent to 39 Main St. The Moody Dog is a food truck that serves breakfast, gourmet hot dogs and sausages.

The next meeting of the City Council will be Tuesday, Jan. 17.