BAR HARBOR, Maine — The future of the cruise ship business in the state’s busiest cruise ship port will come to a crossroads next week when local voters consider two competing proposals on the town meeting ballot.
Two questions will come before local voters on June 13 — one proposed by the town and the other by opponents who want to limit both the size of cruise ships that tie up along the waterfront and the number of cruise ship passengers who can disembark in Bar Harbor each day.
Article 12 on the municipal town meeting warrant, proposed by the town, would allow for a zone change so that the former Canadian ferry terminal off Eden Street could be rebuilt to serve as a dock for cruise ships and other maritime commercial vessels.
Article 13, posed by an opposing citizens group, would prohibit vessels longer than 300 feet from tying to the dock and would have residents vote at a subsequent meeting on whether to set a daily limit on cruise ship visitors. The citizen initiative would also prevent the town from spot zoning for the proposed maritime use.
Currently, only smaller commercial passenger ships carrying fewer than 100 passengers are permitted to dock at the town pier in downtown Bar Harbor. Larger cruise ships have to anchor farther out in Frenchman Bay and shuttle passengers to shore, weather permitting. On days when the surf is too high, passengers sometimes don’t come ashore at all.
The cruise ship industry contributes millions of dollars to the state’s economy each year. Cruise Lines International Association has conducted studies that indicate, on average, each cruise ship passenger spends a little more than $120 in each port that he or she visits. At that rate, cruise ship passengers are estimated to have spent roughly $11 million in Portland and $20 million in Bar Harbor last year.
The citizens initiative would not automatically change the existing daily limit of cruise ship visitors allowed in Bar Harbor. It would give the voters the power to change that limit at a subsequent town meeting, rather than leaving it to the discretion of the Town Council, as is presently the case.
Currently, in the peak cruise ship seasons, between May 1 and June 30, and Sept. 1 and Oct. 31, no more than 5,500 passengers a day are allowed to disembark at the terminal. That number drops to 3,500 in July and August.
Those passenger limits have been in place for about a decade, and even with passage of the town’s proposal, those capped figures wouldn’t change, Paul Paradis, chairman of the town council, said Monday.
The most significant change, he said, is that larger cruise ships would have the ability to dock directly at the pier, as opposed to ferrying passengers to shore in tender boats.
By having a pier where large cruise ships can tie up, it would greatly reduce safety risks and environmental hazard factors, Paradis said. Larger cruise ships currently are required to anchor in the bay and keep the engine idling at all times to maintain position, he said.
If a cruise ship were able to dock, it would do away with the need to keep the engines running, and would allow passengers a safer way to disembark directly on the mainland, Paradis said. It would also reduce traffic congestion in downtown Bar Harbor, he said, as most passengers would get there via a shuttle service. Under the current arrangement, buses and taxis cluster at the eastern part of West Street in downtown Bar Harbor waiting for cruise ship passengers.
But opponents of the town’s plan are afraid a new maritime zone that allows for cruise ships to dock would only serve to exacerbate Mount Desert Island’s already congested two-lane roads and Bar Harbor’s tourist-laden downtown.
In an Op-Ed submitted to the Bangor Daily News last week, AJ Greif, who is a Bar Harbor homeowner, an attorney for Friends of Frenchman Bay and one of the drafters of Article 13, said the decision facing voters is about choosing two different futures for Bar Harbor — one that is controlled by the cruise ship industry, and one controlled by residents.
Greif described the massive ships as “20-story floating hotels,” which, being docked so close to shore, “would bring noise, light and air pollution to the town and [Acadia National Park].”
Town Manager Cornell Knight acknowledged on Friday that tourist destinations like Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park have to be closed sometimes in the summer season because of capacity issues, even on “non-cruise ship days,” he said.
Bar Harbor sees about 3.3 million visitors every season, and an average of about 140,000 of those visitors arrive on a cruise ship or other commercial tourist maritime vessel, Knight said.
Last year the town saw an uptick in cruise ship visitors — nearly 170,000. This year, the number is expected to get as high as a quarter of a million, according to Paradis and Knight.
MaineBiz reported last week that more cruise ship passengers are expected across the entire state this season, with a record 410 ship visits expected, compared with 361 in 2016. Bar Harbor is scheduled for 163 ship visits this season — 58 more than last year.
Portland, the state’s second busiest cruise port, is expected to have 90 cruise ship visits this year.
For decades, the local ferry terminal pier on Route 3 was where passengers, cars and trucks could board the Bluenose ferry and, later, the high-speed Cat ferry, and cross the Gulf of Maine to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. International ferry service from Bar Harbor was was discontinued in 2009, however, and since then the town has been “working on some public acquisition” of the pier to ensure its future “public maritime use,” Paradis said.
That use could include a ferry and cruise ship terminal or a possible marina, Paradis said. A feasibility study the town completed in 2012 determined that allowing cruise ships to dock at the facility would generate the most revenue for the town, he said.
If voters approve Article 12, the town can purchase the pier from MDOT for $2.5 million. If the town presents a developer and site plan to MDOT at the time of sale in June 2018, the state department will knock off $500,000 from the asking price, Knight said last week.
If the Article 13 citizens initiative prevails over the town’s proposal, MDOT officials have said they will not sell the facility to the town, Knight said. Town officials are worried that if the town does not acquire the property, the terminal would be sold to the highest bidder, and the town would lose its chances of retaining it as a public access to the waterfront.
Renovating the deteriorating pier to make it suitable for docking large cruise ships would be a significant project, likely one that takes a few years and costs around $30 million, Knight said.
But the goal is to not put the burden “on the backs of taxpayers,” Knight said. The town would take out a bond to fund the project and then would pay it off over time with revenue generated by passenger and cruise ship impact fees charged by the town.
And it is an investment in the future of the town and other Mount Desert Island attractions, Paradis said.
Cruise ships are a “significant contributor to our general fund and to keeping taxes down,” he said. “We’re not talking about changing or bringing in more people than are currently allowed now. We’re just trying to figure out how to do this more efficiently.”