BAR HARBOR — In a split vote, the Town Council on Tuesday denied a request to book cruise ships that would exceed the passenger limit for specific “trial dates” in 2018.
The passenger limit, set in 2009, is 3,500 passengers per day in July and August. In the fall and spring months, the limit is 5,500 passengers per day. The harbormaster has discretion to exceed the maximum by 200 passengers during July and August, as long as the overage doesn’t involve adding another ship.
Cruise companies book visits several years out, and Harbormaster Charlie Phippen said the companies were waiting for word on whether they could book the requested days.
He brought the question to the Cruise Ship Committee, which voted last week to recommend the council allow the overages. The committee would “consider ways to monitor the operations and analyze the impact of passenger overages,” Phippen wrote in a memo. “All other dates scheduled in 2018 will be in accordance with established passenger caps.”
Councilor Gary Friedmann made the motion to allow the overage “experiment” on seven specific days, adding language requesting the Cruise Ship Committee commission a cruise ship impact study. The study would gauge the “quality of resident and visitor experience” on days with no cruise ships, days with cruise ships within the current passenger cap and the seven days in 2018 with more passengers than normally allowed.
The motion failed 3-4, with Councilors Friedmann, Paul Paradis and Peter St. Germain in favor, and Clark Stivers, Matthew Hochman, Anne Greenlee and Burt Barker opposed.
“Have we analyzed the impact of anything so far?” Stivers asked. “Isn’t it better to know if it’s already too crowded? Maybe we should do some of this monitoring now instead of saying ‘Let’s increase and see if the place blows up.’ It’s only an experiment, but it’s an experiment that could exacerbate an existing problem.”
Councilors discussed information already available that could be compiled, such as ship manifests with the number of passengers on a ship for a particular visit and how many passengers come ashore. The Cruise Ship Committee also could ask for records from the Police Department and Acadia National Park about traffic issues or other congestion-related concerns, they said.
A study currently underway by Todd Gabe of the University of Maine is aimed at the economic impact of cruise ships; passengers are surveyed about whether they spent money in town. That is a different focus from a study to understand congestion, councilors said.
“I’m not sure that I could tell you whether crowds in town are due to the cruise ships or not,” Friedmann said. When town was very busy with visitors here for the MDI Marathon last weekend, “are we all going to sit here and say, ‘That’s the end of the marathon’ because it was too crowded?”
Town Manager Cornell Knight said having two facilities for cruise ship tenders to land seems to have helped.
“When the passenger caps were established in 2009, there was only one Coast Guard approved facility for tendering cruise ship passengers,” Phippen wrote. There are now two approved facilities, Harbor Place and Harborside Marina, and the possibility that tenders could be landed at the Bar Harbor Ferry Terminal in 2018.”