BAR HARBOR — Proponents of a citizen initiative amendment limiting cruise ship operations disagree with the town attorney about whether their proposal conflicts with the planning board’s proposed amendment for the former ferry terminal property.
Both proposals will be on the ballot at Town Meeting elections June 13. The citizen initiative, Article 13, inserts a daily cruise ship passenger cap into the land use ordinance (LUO) and restricts the length of cruise ships that may tie up to any pier. The planning board proposal, Article 12, creates a new “Shoreland Maritime Activities” zoning district for the parcel at 121 Eden Street.
The zoning questions come to voters amid heated debate about the cruise industry here. The town is hoping to buy the ferry terminal property, which is currently owned by the state Department of Transportation. Town officials say that would be difficult if Article 13 passes or if Article 12 does not pass.
Citizen initiative proponents say their proposal codifies the status quo, where large ships anchor in the harbor and send passengers ashore via small tender boats, but they also say the cruise industry has too much influence in town government.
“We are not at their mercy,” petition leader James Blanchard said at a public forum on cruise ship issues Thursday at the Jesup library, referring to cruise companies. “They should be considering what we want and what we need.”
At a planning board hearing on the citizens’ initiative amendment Wednesday, the board unanimously voted to recommend that voters reject Article 13. Because the amendment was brought by citizen initiative, it requires only a simple majority vote to pass despite the board’s reservations.
A group supporting Article 13, called Friends of Frenchman Bay, hired Portland land-use attorney Bill Dale to review their proposal. The group is fundraising to support efforts to pass the amendment and to oppose creation of a Port Authority here, according to an email sent by summer resident Sarge Collier soliciting financial support. Dale also represented a group of residents who sued the town over a group of zoning changes in 2010 in Bracale v. Bar Harbor.
“I believe your amendment dovetails with the Town’s,” Dale wrote in a letter to resident and attorney Arthur Greif, who helped draft the proposal, “such that if both are approved by the [Department of Environmental Protection] Commissioner and by the Annual Town Meeting, they should be able to work together.”
Town Attorney Ed Bearor said Wednesday that he disagrees.
“I don’t think they can easily be read in harmony,” he said.
Current procedure is for the town council to set the passenger cap annually, on recommendation from the appointed Cruise Ship Committee. The committee includes residents at large, police, the harbormaster and maritime industry and scientific representatives as well as representatives of cruise-related businesses.
Blanchard defended the citizen initiative process and took issue with claims that it represents an “end run” around normal government processes. Residents exercising their petition rights are operating under the same authority as the Town Council or any other town government function, he said.
But planning board members were concerned that passenger caps do not belong in the LUO, that the amendment process would take too long for smooth harbor operations. It would be awkward to ask the town’s Code Enforcement Officer, charged with enforcement of LUO rules, to get involved with cruise ship reservations and operations normally managed by the Harbormaster.
Board members asked Bearor what would happen to existing cruise ship reservation contracts if voters approved a LUO change that lowered the cap. He said any contracts would stand, if the agreements were enacted before an ordinance change.
Resident Doug Maffucci said at the hearing that while he respects the right to citizen initiative, he worries about unintended consequences and “voters’ remorse” following referendum questions, such as statewide decisions last year on the minimum wage and marijuana use.
“I hear a lot of voters on both sides of an issue say after the fact, ‘Hey, I didn’t know that!’” he said. “If we start toward a raw democracy rather than using our elected representatives, it gets messy very quickly.”
Board member John Fitzpatrick agreed, saying a citizen petition LUO amendment “doesn’t benefit from contemplating how it fits with the rest of the ordinance.”
More than 120 people packed into the library for the March 30 forum, organized by Nina St. Germain and Ron Beard. Attendees asked questions of two panels, representing the town’s position and one representing the citizen’s petition group.
The town’s panel was council chair Paul Paradis, Town Manager Cornell Knight, and Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines representative and cruise ship captain Thomas Hinderhofer.
Residents asked about the business plan being developed for the property, which Knight said will likely not be complete until the fall, after the June zoning votes.
Tom Burton, Dessa Dancy, Barbara Fenderson, Blanchard, James O’Connell and Anne-Marie Quinn represented the citizen’s initiative group in a second panel.
They argued the town could buy the property and use it for cruise ship tendering and other maritime uses without building a cruise terminal.
Video of the forum is available on the town’s Facebook page.