BAR HARBOR — The town is set to sign a 5-year lease agreement that would allow ferry service between Bar Harbor and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia to resume next year.
The town council unanimously approved the decision Tuesday, directing Town Manager Cornell Knight to sign the lease with Atlantic Fleet Services Corporation, a local partner of Canadian ferry company Bay Ferries. The lease is set to go into effect Dec. 1.
“This decision tonight was probably one of the toughest that we’ve made,” councilor Judie Noonan said. “But you know, I really believe the seven of us … are really working hard in the best interest of the town.”
Councilor Erin Cough said that through revisions to the lease, Bay Ferries had “addressed all our concerns. I truly appreciate the effort [Bay Ferries has] put into this. It’s phenomenal.”
Of all the councilors, Joe Minutolo was the most conflicted.
“I’ve lost a lot of sleep over this property,” he said, adding that he had tried to come up with a decision that would please everyone. “This was a big decision. I think this could work.”
Bay Ferries operated the CAT ferry that ran between Bar Harbor and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia from 1997 to 2009. The five-year lease will allow Bay Ferries to return, though the lease is officially between the Town of Bar Harbor and Atlantic Fleet, which contracts with Bay Ferries to provide shoreside operations for its Maine ferry service. Atlantic Fleet is owned by Annette Higgins of Bar Harbor.
The lease will allow the tenant to occupy a portion of the ferry terminal beginning Dec. 1 for an annual base rent of $69,000 in U.S. dollars, plus passenger, vehicle, and bus fees. The lease contains a “province guarantee” that payments are guaranteed by the Province of Nova Scotia.
The town’s residents voted in June to purchase the former ferry terminal from the Maine Department of Transportation.
The lease also needs approval by the State of Maine, which still owns the ferry terminal until the closing with the town in late November.
Meanwhile, Mark MacDonald of Bay Ferries announced his intention to begin refurbishing the property before the newly approved lease agreement takes effect on Dec. 1.
Bay Ferries first announced their intention to resume international ferry service from Bar Harbor in October 2017, as the town council and a large citizen advisory committee was at work on weighing potential uses for the property.
The advisory committee advocated converting the ferry terminal to a “multi use marine facility.”
Anna Durand, who spearheaded the advisory committee process, supported the lease-signing. “If there’s a five-year lease, we’ll get five years’ worth of revenue,” she said at the meeting Tuesday. “It’s a reasonable bet.”
In the year since Bay Ferries announced interest in returning, the prospect of inviting the company back to Bar Harbor has been controversial. Through letters, emails, petitions and public hearings, Bar Harbor residents have argued for and against Bay Ferries’ return.
Last week, concerned residents cited an article published in the Canadian news organization Global News as evidence that the government of Nova Scotia was not committed to funding Bay Ferries. According to the article, an advocacy group called Canadian Taxpayers Federation has recently called on the Nova Scotia government to cut off financial ties to the CAT.
Pancho Cole pointed out that exclusion zone requirements imposed by the Coast Guard or U.S. Customs and Border Protection for an international ferry were still unknown. “What would be the exclusion zone? Would boats be able to operate when the boat is coming in?”
“You guys know where I stand on this,” said Bar Harbor resident Jim O’Connell, who helped circulate a petition last month cautioning the council not to make a quick decision.
“The feeling I got from people is that they don’t want Bay Ferries; they want a marina and a park,” he said. “Eighty percent of Bar Harbor said ‘do not sign [the lease]’.”
When questioned by councilors how he came up with that percentage, O’Connell explained he had asked 680 people, and 550 of them had signed a petition urging the town council to slow down.
Councilor Matt Hochman took issue with O’Connell’s assertion, saying, “Let’s stick with facts here. Not everyone is against this. Let’s please use actual numbers.”
Former town councilor Peter St. Germain urged councilors to vote in favor of signing the lease. “It’s your responsibility to decide,” he said. “You have a fiduciary responsibility to do what is good for the town.”