MOUNT DESERT — Intentionally or not, David Bunker seems to have put the town of Cranberry Isles in a bind.
The owner of Beal & Bunker, which has provided ferry service between the Cranberry Isles and Mount Desert Island for more than 60 years, has told Mount Desert Harbormaster John Lemoine that he intends to continue running a ferry, but only between May 1 and Columbus Day each year.
Bunker could not be reached for comment.
The Mount Desert Marine Management Committee (MMC) voted Tuesday to grant landing rights in Northeast Harbor to a ferry operator acceptable to the Cranberry Isles for the half of the year between Columbus Day and May 1.
But ferry service to the Cranberries is profitable only in the summer and early fall.
“I can’t imagine anyone wanting to pick up the Cranberry Isles passenger service just for October to May, without getting the benefit of the summer traffic,” said MMC Chairman Rick Savage.
Bunker has said for more than a year that he wants to sell the Beal & Bunker ferry service and retire. Town officials have studied various options for ensuring that year-round service continues.
At a special town meeting last month, Cranberry Isles residents rejected the idea of the town buying and operating a ferry service. Instead, they voted 33-3 to have the town contract with a private, for-profit operator to provide year-round service between the Cranberry Isles and both Northeast Harbor and Southwest Harbor.
Lemoine, the Mount Desert harbormaster, said that as long as Beal & Bunker has landing rights in Northeast Harbor, it would not be feasible to grant landing rights to another ferry operator for year-round service.
“To have two ferry services competing during the summer months would cause congestion on our docks, and that’s what we’re worried about,” he said.
Savage said Mount Desert could not require a ferry operator to provide year-round service without amending the town’s harbor ordinance. He said a re-write of the ordinance is currently being drafted. Savage and other committee members said it should include a provision for accommodating “essential services” such as a year-round Cranberry Isles ferry.
Four representatives of the town of Cranberry Isles met with the MCC to discuss the ferry service dilemma. They were Selectman Joy Sprague, Jim Fortune, the selectmen’s administrative assistant, and residents Joanne and Paul Thormann.
Joanne Thormann read a statement in which she said the Cranberry Isles is working on a re-write of that town’s harbor ordinance “in order to be able to regulate all commercial operations that use the piers, floats and docks in the town.”
She did not comment on speculation by MMC members that the proposed ordinance amendment would require any ferry operator to provide year-round service. She did say that the harbor committee wants to have a proposed ordinance amendment for Cranberry Isles residents to vote on at a special town meeting sometime in August.
Sprague, the Cranberry Isles selectman, said the loss of year-round ferry service would be devastating.
“We are looking at having our roads [to MDI and the mainland] destroyed,” she said. “We’ll have no way to come back and forth, and you’ll see the community dying.”
MMC member Jim Bright said everyone has always assumed that Beal & Bunker’s intent from the outset was to provide year-round ferry service.
“Unfortunately, that’s not written into the [landing rights] permit.”
Permits must be renewed every January. But requiring a commitment to year-round service as a condition of the permit would require an ordinance amendment.
“This is an unbelievable set of circumstances,” Savage said.
The MMC’s vote to grant landing rights in NEH to the Cranberry Isles or its designated operator for the period of Columbus Day to May 1 was “contingent on Beal & Bunker putting in writing to the harbormaster that they are going to run only from May 1 to Columbus Day.”