BAR HARBOR — A bill in the Maine legislature allowing creation of a Bar Harbor Port Authority was supported in a 5-2 Town Council vote Tuesday. However, the final decision on creation of such an entity rests with local voters.
The discussion was tabled from the Feb. 7 council meeting to give councilors more time to study the proposal.
A Port Authority would be a public entity created to operate a future cruise and ferry transportation terminal at the Eden Street waterfront site currently leased by the Maine Department of Transportation (DOT). The town and the state are negotiating the town’s purchase of the property for maritime use.
Consultants have recommended the town consider forming a Port Authority to finance and manage the facility as a way to shield taxpayers from financial risk.
Those negotiations are not yet complete. But because the DOT is hoping to transfer the property in 2018, Town Manager Cornell Knight has said that enabling legislation for a possible Port Authority must be introduced in the current legislative session. That resulted in the introduction of an “emergency” bill.
All nonemergency bills passed by the legislature and signed by the governor become law 90 days after the end of the legislative session. If Bar Harbor decides it does want to form a Port Authority, Knight said, it would be too late for the DOT’s timeline.
Residents expressed concern about the “emergency” language and said the Port Authority structure might not afford enough input or access for the town and its residents.
“That is the last piece of land that people of Bar Harbor could look forward to using,” resident Anne-Marie Quinn said. “Please spend more time finding out what that would mean.”
Councilor Gary Friedmann argued the debate over a possible Port Authority “muddies the waters” in the politically charged process of acquiring and developing the ferry terminal. He and Councilor Anne Greenlee voted against the proposal.
“We’re all aboard this ferry terminal ship right now,” Friedmann said, “and we’re headed into iceberg-laden waters. If we don’t steer this thing in a way that’s broadly acceptable to the voters of the town, we’re gonna hit something.”
“Voters are going to have two opportunities to kill this thing in June,” he continued. One is a zoning change prepared for the property by the town’s Planning Board.
The other is a citizen initiative to write passenger caps into the land use ordinance and keep large ships from tying up to any pier. Friedmann said that language would “make acquisition of the property impossible.”
Councilors made several changes to the language of the draft Port Authority bill, sponsored by Sen. Brian Langley (R-Hancock County). They deleted references to powers of eminent domain, and they adjusted the composition of the board of directors. In the current draft, three directors would be elected by Bar Harbor voters and two appointed by the Town Council.
The bill likely will be revised in the Legislature, council Chair Paul Paradis said. Bylaws laying out the specifics of Port Authority operations would be drafted ahead of a town vote on its creation, Knight said.
Decisions like how much revenue the town would get from cruise ships, and how many ships and visitors would be allowed, would be made when drafting those bylaws.
“If we go to a Port Authority, I would still like to keep the passenger fee in place” as revenue to the town, Knight said Wednesday morning. “That’s certainly what we’ll strive to do, and we’ll see what the business model will support.”
Rep. Brian Hubbell also has submitted a slightly different Port Authority bill, but neither version has been printed by the Revisor’s Office, assigned a number or officially introduced.
“Both Sen. Langley and I have been working together on his bill in order to move the acquisition forward for the public benefit of the town,” Hubbell said.