Arthur Greif, one of the authors of the Article 13 citizen amendment about cruise ships on next month’s ballot, speaks with a TV reporter before the Town Council meeting Tuesday. ISLANDER PHOTO BY LIZ GRAVES

Ferry terminal issue debated

BAR HARBOR — The debate over zoning changes affecting cruise ship operations here and the former ferry terminal property on Eden Street is heading into the home stretch as a June 13 vote approaches.

Residents, town officials and news media gathered twice on Tuesday to discuss the topic, at a midday Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce event at Reel Pizza and at a formal public hearing on the zoning changes at the Town Council meeting.

Voters will consider two ballot questions: Planning Board proposal Article 12 and citizen initiative Article 13. Town officials have long hoped to build a pier at the ferry terminal site that would allow cruise ships to tie up directly rather than shuttling passengers ashore in smaller “tender” vessels.

The state Department of Transportation currently owns the property. The DOT is offering the town an exclusive purchase option, but only if voters reject the citizen initiative Article 13.

Article 12 would create a new Shoreland Maritime Activities District for the ferry terminal property under rules that allow such a change without it being considered “spot zoning.”

The purpose of the new district, according to the language of the article, is to “support maritime activities related to the use of the … ferry terminal for both cruise ship and ferry activities.”

Planning Director Bob Osborne said the Planning Board worked with state officials in drafting their proposal but also incorporated public input. “They considered the height and setback requirements in surrounding districts and tried to do a balancing act” to allow development that would fit in the neighborhood,” he said.

Proponents of Article 13, which would ban any cruise ships longer than 300 feet from tying up to dock, thus requiring them to continue to anchor in the bay and ferry passengers to shore in small boats, said they worry about dramatic increases in the size of ships and number of passengers they carry.

“Once the zone is changed, whoever is the legal owner will make the decisions,” resident Dennis Bracale said at the hearing. “Anytime you open it up, there will be fights later. Look at the West Street Hotel – what happened was exactly what the zoning allowed.”

Barbara Fenderson asked if cruise ships tied up at a pier would take the place of ones anchored in the bay, or be in addition to them.

“It’s possible, but we have passenger caps,” council Chair Paul Paradis said. The daily passenger cap is set by the council and has not been changed since 2009. Article 13 inserts the cap into the zoning ordinance, requiring a town meeting vote to change it.

Preliminary financial analysis of a cruise terminal by the town’s consultant was done assuming no increase in the cap.

Currently, two or three ships are at anchor around the Porcupine Islands some days in the fall. If two of the largest of those, carrying around 2,000 passengers each, were at a pier instead, only one smaller ship carrying 1,500 passengers or fewer would be allowed to anchor that day.

Regulating harbor operations such as passenger caps in a land use ordinance is an awkward fit, town officials have said. Cruise ship reservations are made years in advance, and any existing contracts would stand in the event of a change in the passenger cap.

Osborne said the passenger cap language in Article 13 may not govern ongoing operations at all, only operations presenting new applications to the Planning Department.

Erin Early Ward and Donna Karlson both cited the town’s comprehensive plan, supporting opposite arguments, since the language in the 2007 document harbors differing points of view. “The public meetings for the comprehensive plan underscored considerable concern and differences of opinion regarding the impact of the cruise ship industry on the local economy and community,” Policy 3E in the plan reads.

One of the strategies listed in the plan, Early Ward said, “says the town is hoping to move cruise ship operations out of the downtown. The ferry terminal is listed as one possibility.”

Karlson noted the plan also says some citizens already were worried, in 2007, that cruise ship visitation was at a “tipping point” where further development could negatively impact the character of the town.

“If Article 12 passes, our little wish list as citizens doesn’t matter,” she said. She argued that once a cruise ship facility is an allowed use under the site plan review process, citizens can give input, but the Planning Board must approve an application as long as it follows the land use rules.

Resident Arthur Greif expressed concerns about the purchase option agreement with the DOT recently approved by the council. He said that since the DOT purchased the property with state bond funds, it would not be at liberty to sell it for a hotel or any purpose not aligned with maritime transportation. He said the deal includes a provision allowing the state to repossess the property if the DOT is not satisfied with the facility built there, at its sole discretion.

“This is the reason why you’d better hope Article 13 passes, so you can walk away from the very bad deal you’ve made.”

Resident Arnold Lundquist urged residents to have faith that elected leaders will seek and listen to citizen input. “I think we look at the LUO as a creation of a whole bunch of people we have faith in to do the business of the town,” he said.


Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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