BAR HARBOR — A group of residents is seeking to limit the length of cruise ships tying up here and the daily number of passengers allowed by proposing amendments to the town’s land use ordinance (LUO).
A committee headed by Jim Blanchard filed paperwork with Town Clerk Pat Gray Monday to begin the process for a citizens initiative ordinance amendment. The group will need 243 signatures on their petition, 10 percent of the number of people who voted in that last gubernatorial election here, in order for the petition to be considered for the June town meeting ballot.
The former international ferry terminal on Eden Street is leased by the state. Negotiations are underway for the town or a future local Port Authority to purchase the property for development as a cruise ship terminal (see related story).
“We may be on the verge of some important decisions for the town,” Blanchard told the Islander. “I think this has the advantage of guaranteeing input of the residents directly through amending the LUO, instead of leaving all the decisions to various boards.”
He said the number of visitors to Bar Harbor, Acadia National Park and Mount Desert Island has been increasing exponentially, creating issues that need to be addressed.
“We can’t make the town or the national park or the island any bigger,” he said, so moving to limit the number of visitors may be warranted.
Blanchard said attorneys Bill Dale of Portland and Arthur Greif of Bar Harbor reviewed the language of the petitioners’ warrant article. “The LUO being such a complex document, we wanted to make sure everything fit,” he said.
Gray said the town charter requires the Warrant Committee to make a recommendation 60 days before the election. Before that can happen, her office must verify the collected signatures, send notice to Blanchard as petitioners’ committee chair by certified mail and place the petition on the agenda for the next regularly scheduled Town Council meeting.
“The council still has to be the one to give the order to place it on the warrant,” she said.
The proposed amendments add a definition of “cruise ship passenger cap” and set the maximum number of passengers on any one day at the current levels – 5,500 per day in May, June, September and October, and 3,500 per day in July and August.
Under current rules, the passenger cap is reviewed and set annually by the Town Council on the advice of the Cruise Ship Committee. Writing the limit into the LUO would require a town meeting vote for any future change.
The amendment would also add a definition of “cruise ship tendering/berthing facility” as “a facility designed to accommodate a limited number of cruise ship passengers arriving or departing by tenders from ships at anchorage or disembarking from berthed smaller cruise ships no longer than 300 feet. The combined total number of cruise ship passengers arriving per day at all Bar Harbor docks, piers, wharves, passenger terminals and tendering/berthing facilities shall not exceed the daily cruise ship passenger caps.”
According to a fact sheet developed by the group, the 300-foot number was “based on the size of cruise ships docking at the town pier between 2010 and 2017.” Larger ships currently anchor in the harbor and send passengers ashore via small tender boats to Harbor Place or to the Harborside Hotel dock.
Preliminary designs for a future pier at the ferry terminal property envision allowing the ships currently visiting to dock. This proposal would not allow such a pier to be built, nor allow it to be used if it were built.
The average length of cruise ships exceeded 1,000 feet in 2010 and continues to rise, according to consultants’ reports to the town.
The town’s Planning Board has been at work on another LUO amendment to address the ferry terminal property. If the citizens’ initiative succeeds in putting this amendment on the ballot, it likely will appear alongside the Planning Board’s proposed amendment to create a new zone for the property.
During Planning Board hearings, Planning Director Bob Osborne stressed that the LUO is not a good vehicle to address concerns about day-to-day operation of a cruise terminal.
“I don’t think this intervenes in the day to day operations,” Blanchard said. “It simply sets the ground rules.”
In 2015, a citizens’ petition to amend the LUO was filed in February but put off until the November ballot because it could contradict other amendments already on the warrant. In that case, a judge reversed the Town Council move and ordered the town to put the amendments on the June ballot.
In a separate suit about the same petition amendments, the Superior Court ruled that LUO amendments by citizen initiative are not subject to a rule that changes rejected by the Planning Board require a two-thirds majority vote.
Whatever the town decides about zoning for the site must also be accepted by the state Department of Environmental Protection following a vote, Osborne said, because of shoreland protection rules.
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.