Lawmakers kill Great Harbor bill

AUGUSTA — It took the Legislature’s Transportation Committee less than three minutes April 25 to kill a bill that would ban cruise ships and other large commercial vessels from the waters between Mount Desert Island and the Cranberry Isles.

The committee voted unanimously that the bill “ought not to pass.”

It had been introduced by Rep. Brian Hubbell of Bar Harbor at the request of Bar Harbor resident Earl Brechlin. It would have designated the area known as the Great Harbor as a “small vessel sanctuary.”

The bill stated that it would prohibit “the operation, mooring or anchoring of commercial vessels over 200 feet in length or with the capacity to carry more than 100 passengers.”

Several people testified for and against the bill at a public hearing held by the Transportation Committee March 7. Hubbell said of the Great Harbor, “These waters are used heavily year-round for commercial fishing and are thick with all kinds of recreational craft in the summer and fall.”

Noting that the Great Harbor is not currently visited by cruise ships, he said, “The bill does not seek to prohibit any current activities within this zone, only to preserve the present characteristics and protect against the possibility of conflicts and distress that might occur if large ships might decide in the future to transit or anchor in the Great Harbor.”

Among those testifying in opposition to the bill were Chris Fogg, CEO of the Maine Tourism Association, and Meghan Russo, the Maine Department of Transportation’s manager of legislative and constituent services.

“The waters that this bill seeks to restrict access to are not within the control of the state of Maine,” Russo said. “We do not believe the state has any authority to impose restrictions on federal navigable waters.”

That also was the opinion of Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey. He wrote in a March 28 letter to the committee that if the bill became law it likely would be in conflict with two articles of the U.S. Constitution.

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution states: “Congress shall have power … to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.”

A section of Article VI known as the “Supremacy Clause” states that all laws and treaties of the United States “shall be the Supreme Law of the Land,” taking precedence over the laws of any of the states.

“Maritime commerce and navigation are very heavily regulated by the federal government,” Frey said in his letter. “In addition, there are multiple international treaties that pertain to vessels.

“Without a well-developed record supporting why a total exclusion of certain vessels — but not other vessels — is needed, [the bill] is unlikely to survive a Commerce Clause challenge.”

Rep. Bettyann Sheats, a member of the Transportation Committee, questioned why Hubbell’s bill would ban only large commercial vessels from the Great Harbor.

“There are other large vessels,” she said. “If it’s a serious issue, it should be a broader discussion, not just limiting one category [of vessel].”

Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]

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