Editorial: Cruise control

Like this time two years ago, next week’s election in Bar Harbor features contentious questions related to cruise ships. One would limit cruise ship operations here by prohibiting berthing piers for large ships. The other seeks to limit a perceived outside influence of the cruise industry on town decision-making.

Like this time two years ago, the two sides don’t even agree on the focus of the debate.

One side of the debate is concerned that cruise ship visitation has grown too much and too fast. But these proposals don’t get at the heart of the issue.

Part of the reason is that the daily passenger cap is a policy and not part of an ordinance. It’s unclear whether it would even be possible or legal to set limits in a more formal way, short of enacting a prohibition in the land use ordinance on landing cruise ship passengers, as other Mount Desert Island towns have done.

The anchorages used by the ships, after all, are not in any formal way under the control of the town of Bar Harbor, and they’re in between islands that are part of the town of Gouldsboro.

The other side of the debate is reasonably concerned with ensuring revenue to pay off the large debt the town recently incurred with the ferry terminal purchase. They’re frustrated with arguments about air and water pollution, despite the fact that a berthed ship would produce less exhaust than an anchored one, which must keep propulsions systems running while in port, and a diligent water testing program that to date has produced no cause for concern.

Town officials often cite studies of cruise passenger spending in town. Opinion about those studies are mixed; certainly some restaurants have stories of groups of cruise passengers sharing one cup of chowder, since they already ate on the ship, but also jewelry stores reportedly do well on cruise ship days. Cruise ship opponents blame the recent proliferation of t-shirt shops on cruise visitation, but changing cruise ship policy would seem to be an inefficient way to regulate a specific type of retail business.

Article 5 on next week’s ballot would prohibit berthing piers for large cruise ships. Proponents cite concerns that if ships had the ability to tie up to a pier here, Bar Harbor would attract bigger and bigger ships over time. Requiring passengers to come ashore in tender boats, they argue, provides a natural operational limit as some industry experts have long been saying that cruise lines would prefer to move away from tendering.

Article 4 would permit only registered Bar Harbor voters to hold voting seats on appointed town boards. The town’s Cruise Ship Committee, as currently composed, includes seats for an Acadia National Park representative, a CruiseMaine representative, a marine industry representative, a person “with knowledge of the cruise ship industry in the State of Maine” and other seats often held by non-Bar Harbor residents.

The work of the committee is largely detailed, logistical planning about things like parking, the breakwater and whether there’s accessible wifi in town parks.

Two current members of the Cruise Ship Committee are current and former CruiseMaine staff; they have been the focus of the suspicion that the cruise industry is secretly pulling the strings. But CruiseMaine is a membership organization and part of the Maine Office of Tourism.

Its aim, according to Executive Director Sarah Flink, is to work “with each port city and town individually on promotion based on their unique goals related to cruise ship traffic.”

Certainly it’s not possible to decide whether the town is meeting its goals when those goals haven’t been articulated, or aren’t agreed on.

The Town Council’s 2018 goals document mentions cruise ships three times: as a revenue source through fees, as a congestion challenge and in reference to the ferry terminal acquisition.

The third, a strategy under the “improve and maintain local infrastructure,” expresses a desire to “manage cruise ship visitation, within limits set by the Town Council on a yearly basis, to ensure that the income stream from cruise visitation continues to make public acquisition and development of the ferry terminal viable.”

The town now owns the ferry terminal, though it will certainly be paying for it for many years. So what should be the new end of that sentence? “Manage cruise ship visitation to ensure… ” what? A balance between tourism and quality of life?

Whether Articles 4 and 5 pass or fail, they will not solve the dispute.

Like climate negotiators, we need to decide whether the current level of cruise visitation is sustainable, whether we want or can handle more than we have now, or whether we should aim for a prior year’s level — 2015? 2010? 1995?

Then we can begin exploring possible ways to get there. Is a daily passenger limit working well? Other structures have been tossed around: ship visits could be limited to certain days of the week, or a maximum number of ship visit days could be set for the year.

Members of the Cruise Ship Committee, Harbor Committee, Town Council and concerned residents need to get together and work toward drafting a shared set of goals for cruise visitation.

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