BAR HARBOR — Plans to develop a cruise ship terminal at the site of the former international ferry terminal on Eden Street, which have been underway for more than four years, ran into headwinds last week.
At a special Planning Board meeting Friday with officials from the Maine Department of Transportation (DOT) and Maine Port Authority (MPA), residents expressed concerns about the growth of the cruise ship industry here, and state officials asked for a town vote on a zoning change.
“The Town Council’s goals and the comprehensive plan both explicitly talk about the conversion of the ferry terminal to a cruise ship berth, going back at least five years,” Planning Board Vice Chair Tom St. Germain said in opening the meeting.
“We all think it’s a good idea,” board member Basil Eleftheriou said of the cruise terminal. “What we’re faced with is how to approach the land use definition in a way that will balance what’s good for residents as well as what’s good for business.”
The meeting came a day after DOT Commissioner David Bernhardt sent a letter to town officials questioning whether Bar Harbor is still in support of the plan and asking for “further assurances … by the Town Council as the town’s commitment in advocating for the project if it moves forward.”
The Maine Port Authority (MPA) has completed negotiations on a three-year lease-purchase agreement for the site, said DOT Deputy Commissioner Jonathan Nass.
They have not signed the agreement, though, and are looking for assurance from the town that there’s enough support for the project to make it a safe investment. The potential purchase from Canadian crown corporation Marine Atlantic would be financed using $5 million in bond funds approved in a statewide referendum last fall.
“We don’t go into unwelcome towns with this type of money,” Nass said.
If the DOT went forward with the lease and purchase, he said, it would transfer ownership to the MPA and seek a third-party investor to build and operate the facility. That third party would make lease payments to the MPA.
“The operator would be obliged to abide by town ordinances,” he said.
If the state owns the property, they would not be required to pay property tax. Marine Atlantic currently pays $58,000 per year.
“How does the economic development benefit the town if there are no property taxes to be paid?” resident Dessa Dancy said.
Nass said the plan would be to “hold the town whole,” making up the income from those taxes and retaining passenger fee income, in negotiations with the third-party operator.
The MPA had hoped to use the existing facility for tender operations this summer or next, but MPA Director John Henshaw said the infrastructure is not in good enough shape.
Noise and light regulations are handled at the level of individual contracts with visiting ships, consultant Louis Ajamil said.
Resident Donna Karlson said it would be helpful to see a buoy or other marker demonstrating how far into the bay a cruise ship pier would reach.
“The view is what a lot of people come here for,” she said.
Others said they worry the number of cruise ship passengers already is hampering other visitors’ experiences.
“A small town only works because the proportions are right,” resident Anne Marie Quinn said. “We’re way out of proportion.”
In March, the MPA asked the town to consider zoning changes to the site, which currently straddles the Bar Harbor Gateway and Shoreland General Development III districts, adding allowed uses relevant to the project.
“The Maine DOT and MPA Board felt it was prudent to ask the town for a zoning ordinance update to clarify the specific uses so all parties were on the same page,” Bernhardt wrote, “and also to gauge the continued public support of the project given the unavoidable time lapse between the original release of the feasibility studies and the preparation of a final lease agreement for execution.”
The Planning Board and Town Council discussed the changes and plan to propose a new district in the town’s land use ordinance for the property. The changes, though, were not ready for inclusion in the November 2016 ballot.
“Maine DOT goes above and beyond to include community input,” Nass said. “At the end of the day, we want everyone to be satisfied. That’s why sometimes we walk away from projects.”
Chamber of Commerce Director Martha Searchfield said if the project doesn’t go through, “the town will have no say” in development of the site. “We won’t have a partner willing to work with us as the Port Authority has been.”
In 2010, town meeting voters approved an amendment that created the Shoreland General Development zone. Because the Planning Board at the time opposed the change, the amendment required a two-thirds majority vote to pass.
The terminal and the surrounding hotels had until that time been considered grandfathered, non-conforming uses. The new zoning brought the maritime use of the terminal into compliance. Proponents said the move was necessary because the idle terminal faced losing its grandfathered status.