CRANBERRY ISLES — Beal & Bunker will continue providing ferry service between Northeast Harbor and the Cranberry Isles this year, at least through Columbus Day, according to company President David Bunker.
Meanwhile, Cranberry Isles residents will be asked to vote at a special town meeting May 14 on three options for providing ferry service in the long term.
Beal & Bunker has ferried passengers, mail and supplies to the Cranberries since 1952.
Bunker told a member of the Board of Selectmen early last summer that he did not intend to keep operating the ferry service after Nov. 1. But in August, he told the Islander that, while he wanted to sell the business and retire, he would not leave the Cranberry Isles without ferry service.
“I’m not going to just shut the boat off and have everybody swim,” he said.
Given the uncertainty of Beal & Bunker’s long-term plans, town officials last year considered various options for continuing ferry service. Under the plan favored by the town’s Transportation Task Force, the town would buy the Beal & Bunker operation and then turn it over to a nonprofit entity, which would hire someone to run it. But members of the Transportation Task Force said in August that Bunker had not been willing to meet with them to discuss that possibility.
Bunker told the Islander on Monday that he still wants to sell his business, but has decided to continue operating the ferry service for one more season.
“I was trying to sell it to the town,” he said. “And I’ve had this person and that person say they want it, and then they all back out.”
Last October, voters at a special Cranberry Isles town meeting authorized selectmen to negotiate with anyone they deemed appropriate to provide year-round ferry service between Mount Desert Island and the Cranberries. But board Chairman Richard Beal said Tuesday that that mandate, “just to go out and search the world for a ferry service without any guidelines or the potential funding mechanisms,” was too vague.
He said a new report issued last month by the Transportation Task Force recommends that the town implement a ferry service and offers three options for doing so.
Those options are: A town-owned ferry service with a provider contracted to operate it, a town franchise with a for-profit private operator or a town franchise with a not-for-profit operator. Beal said the third option is similar to the Isle au Haut and Chebeague Island ferry services.
He said a lot depends on which option, if any, voters prefer.
“Are we going to be in the position of buying boats or contracting for a boating service or going with a not-for-profit provider, which in fact could be a subset of town government?” he said.
The Transportation Task Force has recommended a year-round Cranberry Isles ferry service that would dock at both Northeast Harbor and the village of Manset in Southwest Harbor. The Cranberry Isles already owns a ramp and floats in Manset.
Currently, a private operator, Cranberry Cove Ferry, provides ferry service between the Cranberry Isles and Southwest Harbor from late May to early October. That ferry stops at both the upper town dock in Southwest Harbor and the Manset dock.
Bunker said he is aware that Cranberry Isles officials have talked about the possibility of buying boats and starting a new ferry service.
“But I don’t know where they’re going to dock the new boats if they buy them,” he said, noting that he holds the landing rights at the Northeast Harbor Marina.
Several Cranberry Isles officials met last September with the town of Mount Desert’s Marine Management Committee to explore the possibility of having Beal & Bunker’s landing rights transferred to the town.
“People are concerned, and the elderly are frightened about what’s going to happen” with the ferry service, Joy Sprague, a Cranberry Isles selectman and the Islesford postmaster told the committee.
But Mount Desert Harbormaster John Lemoine said the town could not take away Beal & Bunker’s landing rights and give them to the Cranberry Isles or anyone else.
Over the last few months, the Marine Management Committee has been wrestling with the best way to handle the allocation of landing rights when a business that has landing rights is sold. The committee voted Tuesday to allow landing rights to be transferred to any buyer that meets the town’s criteria and to charge a landing rights fee of $5,000 for commercial craft licensed to carry up to six passengers and $10,000 for larger-capacity vessels.
Beal said that if Cranberry Isles voters approve the concept of implementing a ferry service, town officials would hope to work out an agreement on landing rights with Mount Desert.
“The town of Mount Desert understands that the Cranberry Isles needs to come and go, and we would very much like that [Northeast Harbor] option available,” he said.
He said many factors would determine when a new ferry service could start, but added, “We want to have it sooner rather than later.”
Bunker said of his plan to continue operating his mail boat ferry through Columbus Day, which is Oct. 10. “If [Cranberry Isles officials] don’t make their minds up what they want to do between now and then … uh-oh.”
The Beal & Bunker mail boat, Sea Queen, or its backup, Double B, typically makes six daily round trips between Northeast Harbor and the Cranberries during the summer, four round trips in the spring and fall and three round trips daily in the winter. The mail boat docks at Great Cranberry Island, Islesford (Little Cranberry Island) and, on request, Sutton Island.