Mount Desert Island’s 108 square miles contains four municipalities and most of the federal land comprising Acadia National Park. Local officials often talk about challenges that require the towns to work together: housing, public safety and internet access, to name a few.
But on other issues, residents in those towns stake out very different positions and policies. Though Bar Harbor has welcomed thousands of cruise ship passengers every year for two decades, Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor have taken action in the past year to prevent cruise ships from docking or sending passengers ashore.
Decisions made by one town affect all the others. In fact, it seems to be the draw of the Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park “brand” that brought the unwanted requests from a cruise line to make stops in Mount Desert or Southwest. The ship that started the debate in both towns, Pearl Mist, reportedly tied up in Bucksport for its September cruises marketed with a Bar Harbor port stop.
Tremont voters are set to decide Nov. 7 whether to impose their own restrictions on cruise ship activity. The vote provides an opportunity for residents in all the island towns to examine the issue in the service of sensible future action.
The jurisdictions involved can get complicated in a hurry. Most deepwater anchorages are technically in state or federal waters, but in Bar Harbor, the town’s harbormaster assists cruise lines by reserving one of three primary safe anchorage areas for them. A reservation is granted only if the total passenger capacity of all the ships planning to visit falls under the town’s daily cap.
The towns have much less say over activity at a private dock facility, such as the one currently receiving tenders in Bar Harbor, than at a public marina.
Questions about what kind of fuel the ships are using, emissions from their stacks and what kind of paint they’re painted with are outside the purview of the towns, especially if the ships are not tying up to a public pier. Those issues are regulated by federal agencies and, in some cases, international agreements.
The Tremont cruise ship ordinance on which residents will vote says that areas of Tremont “have a potential for increased development pressure” from such activity. It cites “the arguable nonexistence of any enforceable regulations or restrictions on the location, nature and use of sites for cruise ship activities.”
If the ordinance passes, it will impose a 180-day moratorium on “new cruise ship activity,” defined as a ship docking at a pier, or sitting at anchor and tendering passengers ashore via smaller vessels. It’s also intended to apply to both public and private dock facilities.
Southwest Harbor voters opted for a 180-day moratorium, planning to “work on appropriate land use regulations” concerning loading and unloading of passengers arriving in the town by sea.
It’s unclear whether the November 2016 action by the Board of Selectmen in Mount Desert would prohibit tendering passengers ashore from an anchored vessel, even though discussion at the meetings indicated that was the intent.
The minutes of the Nov. 7 meeting, where the motion approved said “the town does not allow cruise ship docking at the marina.” The minutes were approved without amendment at the following meeting.
The harbormaster there refrained from taking a position on the question, but he reported that the September 2016 visit from Pearl Mist, during which the ship anchored off of Bear Island, had gone smoothly.
One change already apparent from such “increased development pressure” is an increase in tour bus visits, not all of which are connected to ships in Bar Harbor. Some carry cruise passengers from Bucksport or other harbors. To manage the influx, Acadia National Park may be forced to switch to an advance reservation-only system for these large vehicles.
As the debates and policymaking continue to play out, we should remember that there are no walls between the towns. We’re all in the same boat. Each town’s leaders and residents, and Acadia’s management, are working hard to manage visitation in a way that supports the local economy while protecting the natural resources prized by residents and visitors alike.