Community forum: Local control of the ferry terminal

By Dennis Bracale

Over the past months, we’ve heard much discussion about why we need to buy the former ferry terminal property on Eden Street.

Good reasons to vote “yes” on article 6, the ferry terminal land purchase bond, include the price and maintaining local control and access. It’s a great bargain, since we can buy it for much less than its appraised value. Owning it means we can control its future use and revenues. It’s possible to buy it without increasing taxes. It will provide much needed public access to the water for fishermen, residents and visitors.

However compelling any of these reasons may be, a far more important reason why we must purchase this property is what can happen if we do not own it.

Early in the process, the Maine Department of Transportation asked that our zoning be changed to allow a cruise ship terminal and pier. During this process, I spoke many times at Town Council and at Planning Board meetings explaining that zoning works best when a community first decides together what it wants the community to become. Then zoning should follow to support that vision. Unfortunately, this did not happen.

Only after zoning had been changed would citizens have an opportunity to participate and consider how this waterfront property could best be used. A community process was started and a ferry terminal property advisory committee of 40 diverse citizens was formed to solicit public input and study options. We are now working towards their recommendations. The problem we now face is that the zoning for the site, changed when voters approved article 12, does not reflect our community’s vision.

Instead, as town attorney Bearor explained in a May 2017 opinion on articles 12 and 13, the zoning was changed with the “intention of serving the cruise ship industry” and to allow the development of a cruise ship terminal and deepwater port.

This zoning has no limits on the size of piers or docks, no limit on the size or number of ships that can dock, no limits on the kinds of ships or cargo, no limits on number of disembarking passengers and no provisions for public access. All other uses, such as parking or a hotel, are allowed only as an accessory use.

The option agreement to buy the property not only requires that the voters of Bar Harbor vote in favor of the bond proposal in June 2018 but also says that failure to do so would result in the “immediate termination” of the town’s exclusive purchase option. The Maine DOT then would immediately be free to develop, lease or sell this property as currently zoned for a cruise ship terminal and deepwater port. We would have no control over what happens on this site.

Under this situation, a developer could take the B&A plan that we paid for and create a large cruise ship port with docks even larger than were proposed and with restaurants, retail, a hotel and other accessory uses.

It gets worse. With recent changes to parking regulations, a cruise ship consortium could buy up land for parking to support a home port. A home port is where people get on a cruise ship and sail to other destinations, such as the Canadian Maritimes. Could this happen? Yes. Would it happen? Who knows. Does zoning allow it? Yes.

On June 12, our town has one chance to own again this critical waterfront property and regain control over how it will be used. If our town owns this property, we could then change the zoning to reflect what we want the site to become. Ownership means we can proceed carefully to develop fiscally responsible projects.

The annual debt service of $246,000 on this bond could be paid without a property tax increase by using other sources of revenues. A $2 increase on the cruise ship passenger fee as recommended by Bermello & Ajamil consultants, for example, could generate over $400,000 in new revenues per season that could more than cover annual debt service payments. Similarly, other sources such as a part of the estimated $500,000 revenues per season from the proposed parking system could be used.

The ferry terminal property advisory committee was a good start to bring the people of this town together, and my deepest hope is that we use a community design process to develop this site. This can further bring us together as a community.

Both the Town Council and the Warrant Committee unanimously recommend the purchase of the site. By owning the property, the people of Bar Harbor can decide what we want our town to become. Please vote “yes” on article 6 on June 12 to buy back the former ferry terminal property.

Dennis Bracale is a Bar Harbor resident and landscape designer. In 2010, he and other property owners brought a lawsuit against the town challenging several zoning changes approved by voters in June and November of that year. One of the challenged changes affected the ferry terminal site. On that count, the Hancock County Superior Court upheld the ordinance amendment and approved the process behind it.

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