Citizen petition to regulate cruise ships likely

BAR HARBOR — The Bar Harbor Town Council is stuck between a proverbial rock and a hard place. Or, more specifically, between residents who want to see a reduction in cruise ship passenger traffic and an industry that says it would be difficult to decrease it for the coming year.   

A survey of Bar Harbor residents and business owners found that more than half of the respondents felt that cruise ship tourism had a negative impact overall on the town. Fifty-five percent of the 1,378 people who responded to the survey indicated that they perceive cruise ship tourism as more negative than positive for the town, while 35 percent felt the opposite, according to a summary of the results. Fifty-three percent of the respondents rated the impact of cruise-ship tourism as an overall negative on the quality of life for Bar Harbor residents. Sixty-three percent of respondents felt that the 2019 cruise ship season, the last season that had a full schedule, included too many days with cruise ships, and 66 percent felt that the average number of cruise ship passengers was “too many” in 2019.  

Since the survey results were released in July, the council has regularly discussed cruise ship visitation at its meetings but has yet to come up with a way to reduce the overall number of people expected to disembark in 2022.  

And the citizenry is taking notice.   

Ahead of last week’s council meeting, resident Charles Sidman sent a letter to the council proposing for the upcoming season a two-thirds reduction in passengers who disembark. Citing the “clear and overwhelming local sentiment” of residents expressed in the survey results, Sidman wrote: “If the Town Council in its wisdom decides to not listen to clearly expressed citizen sentiment and allows continuation of the majority of previous and destructive Cruise Ship visitation, then a new Citizen Initiative will certainly be launched, with awareness this time of how to insulate it from further Council modification afterward.”  

At its Dec. 7 meeting, the council called upon Mike McGarry, senior vice president of global government affairs for the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), to address concerns about the number of cruise ship passengers coming from the boat and into town. An industry trade group, CLIA represents some of the cruise lines that come to Bar Harbor.   

While McGarry said CLIA would be willing to work with the town, he was unable to offer specifics to ease concerns.  

“I hear the feedback coming out of Bar Harbor,” he said, adding that “we want to be constructive partners with the town.”  

He said that cruise line bookings for the 2022 season are well underway and “continue to be marketed” and that any changes to the schedule at this point would be “disruptive to guests and service providers up and down the coast.”   

Council members took turns explaining the toll that the last two years of record land-based visitation has had on the town’s emergency services, staff (both municipal and private business) and to the year-round residents and visitors who had trouble navigating the congestion without the addition of cruise ship passengers.   

Citing public safety, a lack of adequate private sector staff to handle the crowds and in anticipation of seeing record numbers again next summer, council member Joe Minutolo moved to mandate a lowering of overall foot traffic from cruise ships, but the motion was ultimately tabled to a future meeting.   

“We need to make a strong statement and we need to show our citizens that we are making an effort,” said council member Gary Friedmann. “I have been assured that if the council doesn’t do this, the citizens will, and we won’t have the ability to regulate it and work out the rules.”  

For the 2022 season, there are 290,000 passengers on the books if all cruise ships show up as planned. There were 254,000 passengers booked in 2019.   

That level of visitation is unacceptable to Sidman, who told the Islander on Tuesday that he and a group of residents are beginning the citizen initiative process. “If the institutional structure of town government is unable to make the changes necessary to satisfy the citizens” then, he said, the initiative is the last recourse available to them.  

Sidman said that the citizen’s group is familiarizing themselves with the rules of the initiative process and is working with a lawyer to draft the petition language. Once that is done, five residents stand ready to apply to the town to gather signatures. Sidman said he does not expect to be able to make substantial changes to the 2022 season at this point but said that if the upcoming season proceeds as planned and the congestion in town is similar to this year “it will be the best campaigning we can do” to garner support for the town vote, whenever it can be held.   

The town’s cruise ship committee met last Thursday and, following the discussion of the council two days prior, continued discussions with McGarry. McGarry said, at the advice of the organization’s lawyer, he was unable to share information requested from councilors about overall passenger numbers booked to date because that would run afoul of antitrust laws. He said that he has been in communication with the membership and that they are “giving it thought,” but was unable to share any information at the meeting.   

The council plans to continue the discussion at its next meeting Dec. 21. 

Faith DeAmbrose

Faith DeAmbrose

Managing Editor at Mount Desert Islander

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.