Viewpoint: Bar Harbor cruise ship citizens’ initiative update

By Charles Sidman 

To begin this commentary, I would like to emphasize that I am participating in this policy debate and initiative with appreciation for all citizens, fellow business owners and visitors to Bar Harbor. We may have different personal opinions and politics, but recent downgrading and negative portrayals or targeting of others ostensibly attributed to me in a local media outlet are personally dismaying and false, reflecting the opinions of only that journalist rather than myself. I have and will continue to operate in a spirit of respect for others and urge others to do the same and abjure from stirring things up primarily for entertainment. Now for the substance of this piece. 

The citizens’ initiative petition that was formally filed in slight revision on March 17 seeks to reduce and control the number of persons coming ashore from cruise ships in Bar Harbor for the primary and legally permissible purpose of safeguarding and improving life ashore in our town. It applies to disembarkations from both tenders and tied-up cruise ships, and to any location in Bar Harbor including town-owned pier and ferry terminal or privately owned properties. 

Simply put, we have become over the years inundated by too much of a good thing, namely, cruise ship visitors in our downtown, to the detriment of the safety, enjoyment and economic prosperity of residents, most local businesses and land-based visitors alike.  

Town Council has debated this issue endlessly but to no effect due to political differences and sheer terror of legal action (even if defensible and winnable) from the powerful cruise ship industry that many see as gradually destroying much that is priceless and irreplaceable about our town and region. 

This initiative represents an effective avenue for voters to implement their desires as so clearly expressed in the 2021 cruise ship survey. Many will doubtless support the initiative for reasons of environmental stewardship and sustainability, economic justice, etc., but the initiative is based on the narrow grounds and unquestionable authority of our town to regulate and prioritize its physical safety and economic well-being over benefits to a few merchants and an external and exploitative industry.  

Addressing our prime objective, the physical overcrowding of our downtown by cruise ship visitors during prime daytime hours, will also no doubt reduce the number and change the character of future cruise ships visiting, but these are additional consequences and not the primary, or legal, purpose of our initiative. The initiative embeds these cruise ship disembarkation limits in the town’s land use ordinance (LUO) both because it inherently regulates land use and activities, and insulates it from Town Council modification without further voter approval. 

Practically speaking, how would these new limitations work? As an LUO ordinance, regulation and enforcement necessarily fall to the town’s code enforcement officer (CEO). It is she who must levy fines on individual property owners violating their permits or assigned allocations of disembarkations. The initiative requires property owners to apply for and receive permits for cruise ship disembarkation. It further charges the harbormaster with devising and implementing an application and award system for specific numbers of persons to disembark, at specific permitted locations, from specific ships on specific days, with violations reported to the CEO. Town Council might adopt a reservation system based on first-come-first-served applications, a disembarkation auction to generate maximum income for the town, prioritization of boutique or smaller ships (of which there are considerable numbers), etc. 

A final issue of considerable importance is what constitutes formal and legal “acceptance” of a cruise ship’s application to visit. The initiative’s supporters are mindful of the importance of not putting the town in legitimate legal jeopardy by reneging on prior, valid and accepted cruise ship “contracts” (which we have been told repeatedly exist and are a major reason for Town Council reluctance to act). However, despite many promises, the town manager has so far not fulfilled his expressed willingness to provide the actual and definitive list of cruise ships “accepted” (including when and by whom) to visit in coming years, nor the all-important legal language constituting a valid and enforceable “contract.” Do these actually exist? The issue is critical in that it will largely determine the period of time over which the initiative’s limitations come into full effect, could lead to further direct legal challenges to the town by either industry or citizens, and if not absolutely legally sound, could allow the Town Council to implement restrictions earlier than they have so far been willing. Stay tuned for further developments. 

Bar Harbor voters interested in signing the petition now or serving as petition circulators are invited to contact me by email at [email protected] or by phone at (207) 288-0428.  


Charles Sidman resides in Bar Harbor. 

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