CRANBERRY ISLES — Town officials aren’t in panic mode, but they are increasingly worried about ensuring the continuation of ferry service to Northeast Harbor this winter.
Beal & Bunker has operated the mail boat ferry since 1952, but company owner David Bunker said he wants to sell the operation and retire, ideally this fall. He has indicated he would like to sell to the town, and town officials have said they are very interested. But the two parties have not gotten together to discuss a possible sale.
“We haven’t been able to have discussions with them,” said Ron Axelrod, chairman of the town’s transportation task force.
“They won’t meet with us,” added task force member Skip Stevens.
They and other town officials, including two members of the board of selectmen, met Tuesday with the Mount Desert Marine Management Committee to see if Beal & Bunker’s landing rights at the Northeast Harbor Marina could be transferred to the town of Cranberry Isles. The town would then allow Beal & Bunker to continue using the landing rights until the town acquired the ferry service.
Such an arrangement would ensure that a town-owned ferry service could dock in Northeast Harbor and also prevent Beal & Bunker from selling to anyone else.
“That would keep it a vital link of the Cranberry Isles and Northeast Harbor, which has been extremely vital to every resident out there,” said transportation task force member Paul Thormann. “It’s very important for us to somehow sustain our ferry service because without that, we’re just a sitting duck.”
Joy Sprague, a Cranberry Isles selectman and the Islesford postmaster, said the ferry “means everything” to the town.
“People are concerned, and the elderly are frightened about what’s going to happen,” she said. “And we have nine children plus a teacher who commute daily from Great Cranberry to Islesford, plus the special ed teachers and all.”
Members of the Mount Desert Marine Management Committee told the Cranberry Isles delegation that, while they are sympathetic to their situation, they cannot give Beal & Bunker’s landing rights to any other party.
If Beal & Bunker sells to the town of Cranberry Isles or to a private ferry operator, the Northeast Harbor landing rights would go with the sale. If Beal & Bunker were to give up its landing rights without selling the service to anyone else, then any qualified party could apply for those rights and a drawing would be held to determine who gets them. And whoever won the landing rights in a drawing wouldn’t necessarily have to provide a ferry service.
Mount Desert Harbormaster John Lemoine said the town could not take away Beal & Bunker’s landing rights or agree to transfer them to the Cranberry Isles unless that town was to buy the ferry service.
“The other alternative is we do something on the sly for you and end up with a huge lawsuit because someone sues us because they didn’t get the opportunity to bid on it like it is written in our ordinances.”
Axelrod, the Cranberry Isles transportation task force chairman, said that if Beal & Bunker were to stop operating and the town didn’t have landing rights in Northeast Harbor, “Our only other option would be to try to find another port” on Mount Desert Island. He said the only feasible option would be Southwest Harbor.
Cranberry Isles selectmen have tentatively scheduled a special town meeting for Saturday, Oct. 17, to have residents vote on a plan for the future of the islands’ ferry service. But members of the town’s delegation on Tuesday said that there might be nothing definite to vote on by then, in which case the meeting would have to be postponed.
Town officials are simultaneously working on a long-term plan for ferry service between the Cranberry Isles and MDI and a short-term, transition plan in the event that Beal & Bunker wants to stop operating later this fall.