MOUNT DESERT — Before deciding whether to endorse a proposed state law banning cruise ships and other large commercial vessels from Great Harbor, which is the area between Mount Desert Island and the Cranberry Isles, the board of selectmen here wants the Harbor Committee to weigh in on it.
And the selectmen want an answer to whether the state has the legal authority to enact such a ban.
State Rep. Brian Hubbell introduced the bill last month at the request of Bar Harbor resident Earl Brechlin.
Brechlin told the selectmen Monday night that Hubbell has asked the attorney general’s office for an opinion on whether the state can designate Great Harbor as a “small vessel sanctuary.”
“The only feedback he’s gotten so far is that probably, as long as it’s more based on safety and good regulation of commerce rather than just aesthetics, it has a better shot,” Brechlin said. “I think there’s a good chance, but it’s no sure thing.”
He said the purpose of the bill is to protect the traditional uses of the waters of Great Harbor from disturbance by large commercial ships.
“When you look at the sailing schools, the regattas, the number of lobster buoys — you can’t go 10 feet without a lobster buoy out there — any large vessel that goes churning through there is going to start a collection [of fishing gear] on its rudder and really make a big mess.”
John Macauly, chairman of the board of selectmen, said of the proposed law, “I think this is great.” But he agreed with other board members, who said the Harbor Committee should be asked to offer an opinion on Hubbell’s proposed bill before deciding whether to endorse it. The Harbor Committee’s next meeting is Feb. 12.
Harbor Committee member Story Litchfield, who attended the selectmen’s meeting Monday, said she strongly supports the proposed Great Harbor law.
“Without this, you have a lot of small boat traffic and the little kids’ sailboats, and these big ships would have the right of way,” she said. “I think it makes a tremendous amount of sense to prohibit that kind of traffic.”
In the past few years, Mount Desert, Southwest Harbor and Tremont have all acted to prohibit cruise ships or their tenders from bringing passengers to their docks.
Brechlin said Hubbell’s bill “would alleviate the towns from having to pass a hodgepodge of smaller regulations; it would put the weight of the state behind it.”
But that is one thing that concerns Selectman Matt Hart, who said it is possible that, at some point in the future, the town might want to eliminate or relax its cruise ship ban.
“I’m not advocating to start bringing cruise ships here; I want to make that abundantly clear,” he said. “But none of us have a crystal ball, and we don’t know what things are going to look like 10 or 20 years down the road with fishing regulations, with environmental changes.
“I think what we’ve done [with the cruise ship ban] so far has worked. And I am very hesitant to pass the ability to have some level of control from the municipality to Augusta.”
Hubbell’s bill calls for banning “commercial vessels offering overnight accommodations and greater than 200 feet in length or carrying more than 100 passengers.”
Brechlin said it would not apply to private yachts. But Selectman Rick Mooers noted that at least one private yacht that is more than 200 feet long is sometimes “chartered out.” He suggested that Hubbell’s bill make it clear that such vessels are excluded from the ban on entering Great Harbor waters.
Brechlin said the proposed law would not necessitate drawing any new maps.
“There is an existing no-discharge zone, which is basically delineated from Bass Harbor Light to Baker Island Light to Otter Cliffs. That would be designated as the area where large vessels couldn’t go.”