BAR HARBOR — The Town Council on Tuesday, after consulting with an attorney, voted to advance a citizen’s petition aimed at drastically limiting disembarking cruise ship passengers into town.
This action comes after a public hearing on July 19 at which the council postponed adding it to the Nov. 8 ballot due to questions raised about the legality of the initiative.
“I think a lot of people assumed because it did not immediately go on the warrant last week that there was some orchestrated effort to keep it off the warrant,” said Town Council Vice Chair Matt Hochman. “We felt we needed to consult with our attorney and in the absence of any clear absolute…we have moved to put it on the warrant.”
If passed by Bar Harbor voters, the initiative would impose a visitation limit of 1,000 passengers per day. Currently, 3,500 cruise ship visitors may disembark during July and August and 5,500 may disembark during May, June, September and October.
During the public hearing last month, multiple attorneys representing businesses in town, including Ocean Properties, debated the amendment’s constitutionality, namely on the grounds that travel cannot be arbitrarily restricted.
“Our work tonight has been about determining the legality of the content of the petition in terms of moving it to the warrant,” said Town Council Chair Valerie Peacock. “I think in the near future we’ll also be sharing our concerns about the implementation of this amendment as written.”
In February, the council voted against reducing cruise ship visits for the 2022 season as a way to stave off court battles with deep-pocketed companies two months before the arrival of the first ship. Council members voted to have a working group consisting of the town manager, harbormaster and two council members negotiate with industry representatives for reductions in 2023, prompting the citizens’ initiative petition.
Charles Sidman, a venture capitalist and town resident, spearheaded the citizen petition as a way to take back control of an industry that the council has been deliberating with for years to mitigate cruise ship congestion.
Jeff Dobbs, the only council member to vote against the motion to advance the petition, said the citizen petition undermines what the council has been working on separately to reduce cruise ship traffic.
Later during the council meeting, Town Manager Kevin Sutherland presented his working cruise ship management plan as an alternative to Sidman’s measure.
Sutherland’s plan would cap passengers at 3,800 during May, June, September and October and eliminate April and November as eligible shoulder season months for cruise ship traffic. However, the summer season would maintain the same 3,500 visitor-per-day limit.
Monthly caps for May and June would allow no more than 30,000 passengers each. July and August would see a max of 40,000 per month and September and October would be limited to 65,000. Cruise ships anchoring in Frenchman Bay could not exceed more than three per day.
The council will vote on Sutherland’s plan later this month, which has the backing of the industry. If implemented, the town would also procure signed agreements from each line, formally – and legally – authorizing these limitations.
“I think there’s no question in my mind that most people in Bar Harbor want to see a reduction in cruise ship passengers,” said council member Gary Friedmann. “Now it’s up to the voters to weigh whether this initiative is the best way to do that or whether through negotiations (with the cruise ship industry) that the town manager is leading.”