WELLS – How many hotel rooms is too many?
That is the question leaders of this beach town are grappling with as they consider a moratorium on new lodging units along the busy Route 1 corridor. The proposed moratorium, prompted by the rapid increase of hotel rooms and seasonal cottages that have changed the face of Route 1 in the past decade, would allow town officials time to develop a plan to better manage growth along the town’s busiest stretch of road.
It’s an especially tricky move for the York County community of Wells, which is known for its strip of hotels, motels and cottages catering to tourists who flock to southern Maine’s sandy beaches. In the past 10 years, new hotels and groups of cottages have been built on former farmland and on lots squeezed between existing buildings.
Robert Foley, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, calls it a Catch-22: Town officials don’t want to discourage development or tourism, but need to take a step back and plan for the future.
“We want to continue to be an attractive destination, but if you outpace capacity, you make it a negative experience,” he said.
In the past 10 years, Wells has approved plans for 1,017 new lodging units, including 792 seasonal cottages. By the time all of those approved units are built, the town will have 3,095 lodging units, according to town officials.
This year the town will issue 2,653 lodging licenses. The year-round population of Wells is just shy of 10,000, but swells to as many as 45,000 during the peak of the summer tourist season.
The type of lodging units built in town has evolved in recent years. Instead of traditional hotels, developers more frequently are seeking approval for seasonal cottage communities. These communities feature dense clusters of cottages — roughly the size of a large hotel room — surrounded by amenities like swimming pools and tennis courts. They are, said Town Manger Jonathan Carter, “their own little communities.”
The developments also are a new twist on small cottages along Route 1 that were traditionally used by travelers for shorter stays, Carter said.
“Now you own the bungalow, which is 600 square feet. It becomes your summer home, but it’s still regulated as a lodging facility,” he said. “They have sprouted up as a new industry over the past decade.”
Carter said seasonal units like the small cottages add to the town’s tax base, but at the same time create a problem for the code enforcement staff because it is “very time consuming” to inspect them all. The cottages — generally open for six months starting May 1 — range in price from about $165,000 to $189,900 at the Cottages at Summer Village, the largest seasonal development in town with 247 cottages. Cottages at that development rent for up to $1,735 per week.
Foley said now is a good time to look at a new ordinance because there are no plans for lodging units pending before the Planning Board. He said he has received many phone calls from residents who are concerned about the pace of development and want selectmen to look into the issue.
“It’s time we really take a look at how many rooms we can handle,” Foley said.
There are several issues that arise from the increase in lodging units, including stress on local roads, beaches and emergency services, Foley said.
The beach, arguably the biggest draw for tourists, is increasingly crowded as buses and trolleys drop people off for the day. He said town officials want to take a look at what effect those large numbers are having on the beach.
“Traffic is such an enormous problem,” Foley said. “Route 1 is basically a parking lot in the summer.”
Foley said there is also a fairness issue to address.
Lodging facilities that rent no more than three rooms or cottages are exempt from licensing by the Department of Health and Human Services and are not required to pay the state lodging tax. The associations or property management companies at the seasonal cottage villages say they don’t rent units, instead leaving that responsibility to individual unit owners, said Jodine Adams, the town’s code enforcement officer.
“One of the problems we’re having is developers are using our density for hotels of 20 (units) per acre, but marketing them as residential condos,” Foley said. “They’re using our motel density, but they’re not acting as a motel. There’s an inequity there that we need to address through an ordinance change.”
Foley said he also is concerned about the effect too many new lodging units could have on existing hotels and motels.
“If we let it go unchecked, at some point you may impact that competition,” Foley said.
Luke Guerrette, vice president of the Wells Chamber of Commerce board of directors and owner of Garnsey Bros. Rentals, said many of the new summer cottages are purchased by people who previously rented houses. So far there have been plenty of others to come in and rent beach houses, he said.
“I think the demand will always be there,” he said, noting the town’s beaches and proximity to Boston. “At some point we could become saturated, but right now people are still coming.”
Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: