BAR HARBOR — Bay Ferries may be known for its high-speed catamaran ferry service, but preparations for the company’s planned move to operate in Bar Harbor have been proceeding slowly.
With the future of its lease of the old ferry terminal on Eden Street still uncertain, Bay Ferries continues to work towards starting ferry service in June. The Canadian company has contracted with R.F. Jordan & Sons Construction to start demolition work on the site.
That work has already begun, with permission from the Maine Department of Transportation, which for the moment still owns the property.
Last June, Bar Harbor voters authorized the purchase of the ferry terminal from the Maine Department of Transportation for $3.5 million. In October, the town council voted to enter a five-year lease agreement which would allow Bay Ferries to offer an international ferry service between Bar Harbor and Yarmouth, N.S. The lease agreement has not yet been finalized.
Bay Ferries has been operating Maine to Nova Scotia ferry service from Portland for the last several years. The company’s lease with the city of Portland expired Dec. 31.
Bay Ferries’ American affiliate, Atlantic Fleet Services, will also submit a site plan proposal for the planning board’s consideration at their Feb. 6 meeting, with a public hearing to be scheduled at a later date.
Town Manager Cornell Knight told town councilors at last week’s meeting that while there is still not a date set for the closing on the ferry terminal property. However, Knight said he spoke with the incoming Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) commissioner Bruce Van Note, who hopes it will happen by the end of the month, depending on Gov. Janet Mills’ schedule. If not, Van Note said he will get a signed extension of the purchase and sale agreement, which currently expires on Jan. 31.
Bay Ferries is experiencing delays of their own, according to Knight. “Bay Ferries and the province [of Nova Scotia are] still very committed to coming to Bar Harbor,” Knight said. However, the partial U.S. federal government shutdown has slowed their planning process.
“They need to talk to U.S. Customs and Border Protections, and they’re all furloughed,” Knight explained. Those details must be decided before the lease agreement can be finalized.
However, Bay Ferries has gained permission from MDOT to enter the ferry terminal without a lease to do the work they can. R.F. Jordan has begun taking down a canopy and a couple of small outbuildings, as well as some grading work.
“They know that time is getting pretty critical in order to be in business by June,” Knight said.
Before crews can move from demolition to construction, a site plan needs to be approved. Annette Higgins of Atlantic Fleet Services appeared before the planning board last week to discuss how the site plan approval process will proceed.
Interim Town Planner Angela Chamberlain asked for the planning board’s input on whether Higgins could apply as a minor site plan, which would waive the public hearing requirement.
“To us, it’s the difference between being able to start construction in February or March,” Higgins told the planning board. “That month is going to be critical for us. We’re not changing the footprint of the building,” she added.
In a planning board discussion, board member Joseph Cough said he favored a full review for a major site plan. “I think we’d be remiss in trying to not conduct a full review,” he said. “I don’t like putting anything on the agenda that we’re going to be potentially making a decision on that isn’t public notice.”
Board member Alf Anderson agreed. “The whole project was very important to the public in terms of transparency,” he cautioned. “Have the public involved, and obviously we’ll try to move it as quickly as possible.”
Planning Board Chairman Tom St. Germain said the board was open to scheduling a special meeting to hold the public hearing. That said, Chamberlain said it could be difficult to schedule use of the council chambers during budget season.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” said Higgins. “We’ll be on the agenda for Feb. 6th, and then we’ll see where it goes from there.”