In one of Down East Maine’s most generous acts of neighborly cooperation, Mount Desert Island has worked long and hard over the years to accommodate the needs of Cranberry Isles residents seeking access to the mainland. That cooperation has included creating and leasing several parking areas for vehicles owned by islanders, as well as guaranteeing critical dock space and making facilities available to conduct regular ferry service. Although islanders also make use of a ferry service that runs out of Southwest Harbor, and the town owns land for parking in Manset, Northeast Harbor always has been the most critical hub. The historical, emotional and economic ties between the two communities run deep.
At a meeting last week, a delegation from the Cranberry Isles discovered that the town of Mount Desert Marine Management Committee’s opinion is that ferry docking rights in Northeast Harbor are held by the ferry operator, not the Cranberry Isles. Committee members explained that when present operator Beal & Bunker is sold, the landing rights for a ferry service to the Cranberry Isles will go to the new owner.
In effect, that increases the value of the ferry company’s net worth without corresponding compensation to Mount Desert.
Permanent assignment of public rights in the event of a private sale is highly unusual. How could anyone in Mount Desert have allowed a private, for-profit company to “own” the rights to use the town’s docks?
Beal & Bunker has a long tradition of faithful service and responsiveness. But all future owners may not make that a top priority. What if a different company is interested only in cutting services to the bone to maximize profit? What if it closes down suddenly or without notice? It is a fact of life, in these current unsettled economic times, that no single company can be counted on to last forever.
It is obvious that in authorizing the arrangement, officials in Mount Desert at the time most likely believed that would provide greater control over the ferry company’s performance. But that understanding now inadvertently has placed the people of the Cranberry Isles at great disadvantage, as that community determines whether or not to buy Beal & Bunker, negotiate with another provider, establish a municipally-run service of its own or help to set up a nonprofit entity.
As both communities continue to explore how best to continue and strengthen their traditional ties, in light of the pending ferry company transition, it may make sense for the town of Mount Desert to reexamine its policy of a granting public docking rights to a commercial entity. Crafting an agreement that grants docking rights toward the town of Cranberry Isles and/or its designee would go a long way toward giving citizens of those offshore islands greater security and control over an integral and vital part of their daily lives.