BAR HARBOR — Competing visions of the future of the cruise ship industry here are going to voters this summer. Two land use ordinance (LUO) amendments related to the use of the former international ferry terminal property on Eden Street will appear on the town meeting written ballot June 13.
One, prepared by the Planning Board, creates a new Shoreland Maritime Activities district and would allow a cruise ship terminal to be built at the property. The other is a citizen petition initiative that would prevent development of a pier that would allow large cruise ships to tie up. Petition proponents said their approach would preserve the status quo of shuttling passengers from larger ships to shore downtown via smaller “tender” boats.
The state of Maine through the Department of Transportation owns the ferry terminal property. Town officials are negotiating an agreement for the town to buy the property by summer 2018.
The council held a public hearing on the Planning Board amendment Tuesday as part of a slate of 12 proposed LUO amendments developed and recommended by the Planning Board. Article 12 creates a new zoning district that only includes the 121 Eden St. parcel.
“The Planning Board’s concern is that this parcel of land be available into the future for maritime uses,” town Planning Director Bob Osborne said. “It’s the last best chance to have a deep water port in Bar Harbor.”
If the amendment is not passed by voters, he said, “the result will be that the [cruise ship terminal] use that’s contemplated won’t be available.” The allowed land uses would be the ones in the districts today.
The property is currently split between two districts, Osborne said. The board wanted to “have a set of rules that would apply to the entire site.”
“Conceptually, I support the idea of a maritime district here, I think it makes a lot of sense,” hotel owner David Witham said. “But the elephant in the room is that a study was paid for by the town and the chamber to look at what could be done to look at the cruise ship situation, and there’s a proposal out there for a half-mile pier.
“People by nature are visual, and that’s what they’ve latched onto,” he continued, “and I myself have. The passage of this amendment opens the door for this.”
Jeff Dobbs represents town residents on the local Cruise Ship Committee.
“All this zoning does here is allow that possibility,” he said. “As far as a half-mile pier, I’d personally never let that happen. You don’t need a pier to be twice as long as a cruise ship. There’s nothing sneaky going to be happening, I’ll let you know if it does. I wouldn’t panic at this, but I’d work very hard on the future of what’s going to happen at the Bluenose ferry terminal.”
Several residents said they hoped the development of the property would provide for public access to the shore.
Resident Judie Noonan said if the amendment fails and no maritime facility is built, the property would likely become another hotel.
“They’re not making any more shorefront,” she said. “This could really be a golden opportunity for us, or we could end up with another hotel, and they don’t have to guarantee public access either.”
Councilors voted Tuesday to put the citizen initiative question on the ballot along with the town proposal.
The petition proposal would limit the length of cruise ships tying up here and would install the daily passenger cap, currently set by the council on the recommendation of the Cruise Ship Committee, into the LUO so any changes would require a full town meeting vote. The Town Council currently sets the cap.
“This amendment preserves the status quo,” James Blanchard, chair of the petitioners’ committee, said. “We have a talented, educated, qualified group of electors here, and I think we can trust their judgment.”
Town Clerk Pay Gray has certified that the petition has met the requirements for the process. Her office confirmed that 347 of the signatures submitted were qualified Bar Harbor voters.
Proponents of the measure said the town could build a facility at the ferry terminal to receive tender vessels from anchored ships, which now dock at one of two private docks owned by hotel company Ocean Properties (OPL). But opponents said that switch might be difficult.
“We already have a place for boats to shuttle in,” resident David Bowden said. “It goes to a private enterprise. If we just open that up, we’re competing against somebody in town, the rates are going to change. We have a bigger debt service than they have. It doesn’t work. We have to offer something that would make cruise ships want to go there, which is a pier.”
He also said requiring LUO amendments to change the passenger cap could be a financial problem for the town.
“If you want to change the caps, it could take you two years. And cruise ships are booking two years in advance. So that’s four years that you can’t pay your debt service because you need to change the cap. The taxpayers are going to pick up the tab.”
Cruise Ship Committee Chair Eben Salvatore, who represents OPL as the organization receiving tenders from ships, said the existing policy-setting process is open to the public. Most of the members of the petitioners’ committee, he said, have never attended a Cruise Ship Committee meeting.
He questioned specific language in the petition amendment, including that it would limit the cruise ship season to between May and October. Several ships are scheduled in upcoming seasons in April in November, he said, representing significant income to the town and local business.
Donna Karlson, who was not a circulator of the petition but said she helped review it, said when she and others did attend cruise committee meetings, they felt they weren’t listened to.
Councilors said they were hearing conflicting arguments from the group, criticizing the impacts of current cruise ship visitation but saying they want to keep the status quo.
“I’m disappointed in the way this came about,” Matt Hochman said. “I didn’t see this group come to the cruise committee or the Planning Board or the council. A citizens’ petition should be the last line of defense. I’m not in favor of raising the cap, but I don’t think this was the right way to do it.”
Town Attorney Ed Bearor recommended that the council ask the Planning Board to hold a hearing on the proposal, even though in this case the board’s recommendation will not influence the number of votes required for passage of the amendment. He said he was not yet prepared to weigh in on the proposal itself, but that he has concerns about it. The council agreed to ask for a Planning Board hearing but did not set a date. The Warrant Committee also will consider the proposal.
According to documents filed with the town, the petitioners’ committee includes Barbara Fenderson, Hana Bracale, Carol Chappell, James O’Connell, Anne Marie Quin, Tom Burton, Jonathan Eno, Wendy Kearney, Robert Chaplin and Zabet Neucollins.