SOUTHWEST HARBOR — The harbor here is a town treasure, according to Harbor Committee Chair Anne Napier. It’s one of the focal points of the town even for people like her, who don’t own a boat or go out in the water. Over the past year, it also has united the town.
In just four months, the Harbor Committee managed to draft a ban on cruise ships that will go to a town vote on May 8. The ordinance applies restrictions on vessels “carrying passengers for hire with overnight accommodations for fifty (50) or more passengers.”
Napier said the purpose of the effort is to preserve the quality of life in Southwest Harbor. “We don’t want to hugely commercialize our town.”
The town came to a crossroads last summer when Pearl Seas Cruises proposed anchoring a 310-foot-long, 210-passenger ship outside of Southwest Harbor. While many residents were opposed to cruise ship activity, the town didn’t have any ability to regulate them.
The Harbor Committee had to work as productively as possible for the ordinance to make the May ballot. It helped that discussions among committee members were positive and that they were able to come to a consensus on most issues, according to Napier.
“We’ve been able to get a lot done because we’ve been harmonious about it,” she said.
Napier thought that there might be pushback from some of the private dock owners, but even they seem to be on board.
The committee researched how other towns drafted their cruise ships bans and used some of the language found in Bar Harbor’s ordinances. They determined that 50 passengers was an adequate cutoff number to restrict cruise ships without excluding yachts and windjammers.
“What we wanted to do was make sure that we didn’t have an influx of lots and lots of people into Southwest Harbor that weren’t going to stay here,” Napier said. “We didn’t want to eliminate the windjammers, because they do come into town, and they do use the restaurants, and they do spend money in the shops.”
According to state law, towns cannot prevent the passage of vessels in state waters, but they can regulate the use of docks, piers and other structures attached to the land. Because none of the public docks in Southwest Harbor are federally funded, the town government can prevent cruise ships from landing there, Napier explained.
In the future, if the town wants to accept federal funding, it would no longer be able to limit access to public structures and would have to change its laws to reflect that.
The committee also reached outside its own membership for expertise. They involved Skip Strong, one of two licensed harbor pilots who live in town. They consulted with the Coast Guard as well as Noel Musson. Musson chaired the Harbor Planning Committee, which came up with a comprehensive plan for the harbor.
“There’s a lot of people who are investing a lot of time and energy and thought into making this a good town and a good place to live,” Napier said.
In their report, the Harbor Planning Committee determined that the town’s infrastructure cannot support big crowds of tourists.
In early January, Napier led a community-wide workshop that she said “was energizing.” People were open to dialogue and came up with creative ideas.
“I managed to bring a whole lot of different people from different aspects of the harbor,” Napier said.
The Harbor Committee drafted a cruise ship ordinance based on discussions at the workshop and Napier presented it to the Board of Selectmen the following day. Town Manager Don Lagrange then passed it on to the town attorneys, who gave the ordinance its official title, legal authority and scope.
What also came up at the workshop was the need to provide the harbormaster with authority to regulate access to and anchorage in town waters. In May, voters also will consider four new ordinances in the coastal waters and harbor ordinance that could allow that.
“Everybody really likes our town the way it is, and they want to keep it that way as much as possible,” Napier said. “We like being the Quietside.”