BAR HARBOR — Eliminating most of the parking at the town pier to create a “Pier Park” was among the recommendations in a recent “Cruise Tourism and Traffic Congestion in Bar Harbor” study commissioned by Cruise Line International Association (CLIA).
The Town Council had asked for the study last October, following a meeting with cruise industry advocates from CLIA. But when they discussed the findings last week, several councilors said they were unimpressed.
“If we wanted to turn downtown Bar Harbor into a theme park for the cruise industry, it’s a great plan,” Councilor Judie Noonan said, “but I thought we had a community here. And I don’t see anything in here that benefits the local residents, the local taxpayers.
“It’s all about what’s good for the cruise industry,” Noonan continued. “You know, there’s another way we could reduce congestion: Maybe we’ve reached our tipping point with ships. Maybe we need to look at our [passenger] caps … and balance our overall tourism, so the local community can still use the town.”
The study was conducted by Operations & Maritime, LLC, with help from local landscape architecture firm LARK Studios.
Currently, passengers arriving on tenders, small boats that carry them ashore from anchored cruise ships, currently come to one of two docks, Harbor Place and the Harborside Hotel.
Both are owned by hotel company Ocean Properties.
“The main tendering wharf is located on private property,” the study says, “whose inadequate landing space and poor safety and security measures for passengers force pedestrians to spill into the street. Furthermore, the current second location, near the corner of West [Street] and Rodick [Street], does not have the public space to accommodate the tour buses nor the passengers exiting the private property.”
The town pier’s current use as a parking lot, the study says, is “a very poor use of prime waterfront real estate. Despite the acknowledged dearth of parking in the downtown area, designating this space as a parking lot actually exacerbates congestion because vehicles must cross the densest area of town to reach it.”
The recommended new park on the town pier would be “a better landing area for visitors arriving by either cruise ship tenders or private boats” and “an area for cruise passengers going on tour to check-in and group prior to boarding their bus.”
Councilor Matt Hochman said the study showed a “lack of depth in research. There’s definitely stuff in here that, had there been communication with the town, wouldn’t be recommendations,” he said.
Councilor Steve Coston, the council’s representative on the Cruise Ship Committee, defended the study. “I think we’re beating up on it a little too hard. It was free,” he said, referring to CLIA funding the study for the town.
Councilor Gary Friedmann said he wanted to discuss the study further, especially the suggestions regarding the town’s newly acquired ferry terminal property. “We have this property that we just paid $3 million for,” Friedmann said, “that’s barely being paid for by Bay Ferries. A budget item in the next fiscal year is to create parking and shuttle service [there] for the town. This report sparks comments on a whole lot of issues.”
The authors of the study criticized the town’s decision to lease a portion of the ferry terminal property to Bay Ferries. They argued that the town receives far more revenue per passenger from cruise ships than it will from the ferry operation, and that ferry passengers will generate vehicle traffic.
“It is hard to understand the decision of the town — aside from the objective of preserving a maritime nexus — to allow thousands of vehicles through this transportation mode for the modest rent they will generate,” the study says.
The study also supported the idea of a Bar Harbor Port Authority, saying such an entity could serve as a “central planning authority dedicated to assessing impact on overall city operations.
“The current situation is not optimal,” the study says, since “a private entity [Ocean Properties] and the city share the decision-making role. The decision power resides more with the private entity, which is creating suboptimal conditions for the town-owned space, such as parks, streets and sidewalks, which are prioritized after the private receiving dock area and their private operational constraints. Furthermore, the private entity optimizes its operational needs without regard for the impact they could have on public spaces down the line.”
A bill in the Legislature that would have created a Bar Harbor Port Authority encountered vehement opposition from residents of Bar Harbor and other towns with Frenchman Bay shorefront. The Legislature passed the bill in February 2018, but it was vetoed by former Governor Paul LePage.
Town Manager Cornell Knight advised councilors to refer the report to the Cruise Ship Committee. That committee, he said, could meet with CLIA, the authors of the study and the police chief, and make recommendations back to council.
Councilors voted to direct the Cruise Ship Committee to review the report. It was to be the first order of regular business at the committee’s Aug. 15 meeting.