Letter to Editor: Ferry timing

To the Editor:

When I mentioned my concerns about the proposed Bay Ferries Ltd. (BFL) five year lease agreement to a town councilor a few weeks ago, I was surprised when he told me that no one else had shared any misgivings with him about the project.

I had heard differently. (It’s so easy for us to be overwhelmed, isn’t it, especially during the height of summer.) So listen up, neighbors: there is no need to rush this decision. Time is on our side.

There is no doubt that BFL could someday be a player in the development of the ferry terminal property, but I believe it would be imprudent, at the least, for our town to commit to it now. There are just too many unanswered questions that need further exploration and evaluation.

It is my understanding that no debt service payments will be due until FY20, a full year after the ferry terminal bond is sold. There are ways to finance this. There Cruise Ship Reserve Funds, raising passenger infrastructure fees, parking revenues to evaluate, grants and benefactors and philanthropists to reach out to and work with. What we need is time to evaluate and analyze possibilities.

Working together last fall, a group of energized citizens came together to try to make peace and progress on what had become a contentious and divisive issue in our town. Out of that collaboration came a consensual recommendation that the property be developed as a multi-use marina-based facility, with optional tender boat landings and transportation hub. The Council unanimously voted to accept this vision. The town breathed a sigh of relief. A $3.5 million purchase price, no strings attached, no development deadline, and the time to plan and do it right!

But at the last moment, BFL suddenly wanted a piece of this pie, despite it not even being considered by the ferry terminal property advisory committee. In the ensuing months some of our officials have diligently worked with this company to ensure its becoming the anchor piece of this development puzzle.

BFL has, as all corporations do, looked out for their own interests. Our local government is now poised to accede to their needs and their demands and their accelerated deadline; they will vote on the five year lease agreement on Oct. 2. Really? Why?

Missing from this scenario is any input from residents or optional plans for development or financing for us to consider. Though the Harbor Committee is being expanded, it certainly has not had time to address this major development project. Residents’ pleas to reconvene committees to work on plans and options have been denied. The steering committee has held closed meetings; the town website has no link to the committee or meeting minutes. There appears to be a process problem.

The Council recently hired Sam Coplon to do an “accommodation study” of the site. He had a mere week and a half to complete this task, but did fulfill the stated purpose of determining if there was room for “both the ferry and some public use” at the site.

But in listening to his initial presentation, Mr. Coplon repeatedly cautioned that this was but a preliminary study, not a plan, that more time and study would have to go into this before the next phase of planning effort.

Among the unresolved issues raised were that no one knew what the U.S. Customs and Border Protection security zone requirements for the international ferry would be or how they would impact other water and land traffic in the area. No one knew what the ferry will require for traffic and parking and car processing.

There is no commercial use such as gas, showers, food included in the designated non-ferry area. Absent also in this hastily prepared schematic is a boat launch, tender service or transportation hub. Oh, and there could be a marina, but that option has not yet been addressed. Apparently all of this can be determined at some point on the land the ferry does not need.

At his presentation to the town council Sept. 4, Mr. Coplon spent considerable time discussing the problem of the deteriorating “pile pier” and existing buildings and infrastructure; apparently no one knows if they are at all salvageable, the extent of work they will require, or if they will have to be taken down. No one knows what this will cost or what’s beneath the pavement. No study has yet been done on this vital piece.

It was interesting that this concern, which was such a critical issue on Tuesday, was not mentioned during the public meeting the next evening. Nor were his many admonishments that this was hardly a plan, but merely was addressing the possibility of both ferry and public use at the site. The goal was to ascertain if, after the ferry told us what they needed, there would be room for some public use. Some of our officials are apparently content with leftovers, the use of which is to be determined at some future date.

At the public meeting Sept. 5, Mr. MacDonald of BFL was enthusiastic about coming to Bar Harbor. He should be; this is a win-win situation for his private corporation. They need an answer by early October only because it is advantageous to them to move out of Portland in that timeframe.

They also are interested in covering costs only for their own use, not in helping to clean up the toxic and rotting site they previously used. BFL is subsidized by the Canadian government and will depend on government support in the foreseeable future. (One might remember that the withdrawal of that subsidy is why our last ferry failed, leaving behind the unfortunate conditions that now need extensive and costly remediation.)

So why, with so many options unexplored, would we predicate the development of this “precious asset” on the demands and wishes of a private corporation? Their deadline of Oct. 2 may be advantageous to their business planning, but why are we deferring to this artificial deadline?

In fielding questions from the public, Mr. MacDonald did little to reassure us that he had any more insight or answers than anyone else in the room had. He continually replied that he is involved “in a lot of ongoing conversations” and that he is “fully confident there will be no issues.”

I was dumbstruck that this was the level of expertise, of preparedness, of due diligence, presented to us as the best solution for developing our multi-million dollar investment.

I fail to understand why some of our town officials, after the tremendously positive work done last fall by talented and interested residents, are racing to satisfy the wishes and demands of a private, for-profit corporation without allowing the public to participate or for other plans to be solicited, submitted, and evaluated.

There is a total lack of transparency and cooperative problem solving that is difficult to explain or understand. I admire those residents who have taken the time to study and research and involve themselves in this process.

They should not be regarded as adversaries but as collaborators.

There are so many challenges and opportunities and options to be explored. This is an incredible responsibility for our community. What are we afraid of? Together we can make this work. Let’s not squander the opportunity by making precipitous decisions.

Let’s make this a waterfront that we can all enjoy and share and be proud of. This is the opportunity of a lifetime, our legacy to the future of this community…please don’t squander it!

Ellen Grover

Bar Harbor

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