To grow or not to grow: Bar Harbor officials map goals for tourism and sustainability

BAR HARBOR — Tourism, growth and sustainability were the hot topics Tuesday as members of the Town Council discussed their goals and strategies for the next five years.

Councilors were concerned about language in the draft goals document that makes reference to preventing “negative consequences of over-tourism.”

In a closed goal-setting meeting last month, the Town Council identified five goals to work toward, and strategies to get there. Ahead of Tuesday’s council meeting, the goals and strategies were released in draft form.

Councilors further refined the rough draft document in discussion at Tuesday’s meeting, and then tabled the issue until next meeting, when they plan to approve a final draft.

Councilor Stephen Coston proposed taking out the “negative language” about “over-tourism” and rewording that section to refer instead to “the maintenance of a growing and sustainable tourism industry.”

“I’m assuming that the natural path of the tourism industry in Bar Harbor, barring us doing something to oppose it, is growth,” Coston said. “I think it’s the natural way of things and we’d be wrong to fight it, so we should work to make sure it’s maintained in a sustainable manner.”

Councilor Jill Goldthwait and other councilors voiced concern with Coston’s suggestion of adding the word “growing” to the revised strategy.

“I think there are a number of people in town who feel like we are over capacity now,” Goldthwait said.

She said she agreed with Coston that the previous wording was negative towards tourism. But “to assume that [tourism] will continue to be growing is perhaps an error in the other direction,” she said. “I think both [versions] may be pointing the community in a way that it’s not necessarily prepared to go.”

Councilor Erin Cough said she agreed that the word “growing” was unnecessary. She mentioned how tourism has changed over the years, from the turn of the twentieth century on.

The summer-long stays in grand hotels have given way to day trips, cruise ship visits and weekly rentals, she said.

“We’ve sustained the industry of tourism as the major function of this town, but through different innovations,” Cough said. “Sustainable to me … encompasses the idea of growth and innovation, without necessarily saying we’re just going to encourage growth.”

The council voted unanimously to revise the strategy in question, 2d in the draft document, to read “work with stakeholders to ensure the maintenance of a sustainable tourism industry.”

Another strategy, also under Goal 2, “Create effective plans for a Sustainable Future,” was amended at the suggestion of Councilor Gary Friedmann. In light of the council’s recent action to declare of a climate emergency, Friedmann recommended adding that wording.

The revised strategy 2a, approved in a 6-1 vote with Coston dissenting, reads: “Explore opportunities to address the climate emergency by significantly reducing the reliance on fossil fuels by the town, local businesses and residents, including the use of additional publicly owned lots for development of solar energy, and other measures that achieve meaningful energy conservation.”

The first goal in the document is to “increase the year-round livability and quality of life for Bar Harbor citizens.”

Councilor Matt Hochman suggested adding a strategy under that goal to work with the school board to help plan the renovation or rebuilding of Conners Emerson School.

Other strategies under this goal include increasing “the supply of year-round housing units for purchase and rental,” encouraging the “development of year-round businesses paying livable wages,” developing walking and biking trails to promote “health and reduce automobile congestion” and promoting arts “as a community-building and economic asset.”

Other council goals that were not discussed Tuesday include improving the effectiveness and delivery of municipal services, improving and maintaining local infrastructure, and improving the effectiveness and efficiency of town governance and encouraging citizen involvement.

New strategies under these goals include exploring ways to use parking fees to pay infrastructure expenses that would otherwise come from property taxes and collaborating on more community forums to encourage citizen engagement.

Becky Pritchard
Former Islander reporter Becky Pritchard covered the town of Bar Harbor and was a park ranger in Acadia for six seasons.
Becky Pritchard

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