The 590-foot long MS Regatta cruise ship makes a port call in Rockland Harbor, Sept. 15, 2013. Credit: Stephen Betts

Large cruise ships will now be limited to six visits per year in Rockland while the city works on putting together a long-term harbor management plan.

The Rockland City Council voted 3-2 on Monday night to impose daily and monthly limits on cruise ships. Cruise ships with more than 500 passengers will only be allowed a total of six visits in September and October, with a daily cap of 3,000 passengers.

Only ships with fewer than 500 passengers will be allowed to make visits throughout the remaining months, with no more than two ships visiting in a single day.

The move to address the number of visits made by large cruise ships to the city of about 7,200 people comes after a year filled with discussion about whether Rockland should present itself as a cruise ship destination.

“I’ve received probably an equal number of emails and calls both for and against this,” Councilor Adam Ackor said. “I feel like [these limits are] a good way to try to work toward compromise while the newly formed harbor [management] commission does their work.”

Rockland City Hall was packed with people on both sides of the debate Monday, expressing opinions on large cruise ships during a two-hour public comment period that preceded the vote. There was consensus that some type of limit should be imposed, but the conflict came over how and when that limit should be set and what the limit should be.

Those opposed to seeing large cruise ships visit Rockland are concerned that the influx of ship-based tourists will negatively affect the quality of life in the city. One resident likened the ships to an “invasive species.”

This is not the first time residents have flocked to City Hall to express their concern about cruise ships. In May, the council received a petition signed by residents and nonresidents asking for a moratorium on cruise ship visits.

But some business owners and the local chamber of commerce have argued that these large cruise ships provide a boost to Rockland’s seasonal economy, especially with the ships typically stopping into port during the fall.

“My business triples when the cruise ships are here,” said Connie Sawyer, who owns a business on Main Street. “We don’t want to be Bar Harbor. We don’t want to be to be Portland. We just want balance.”

Earlier this year, in response to the concerns over cruise ship visitation, the City Council voted to form an ad hoc harbor management plan committee to update the current harbor management plan, which was enacted in 1995. The committee met for the first time last month and has received a $30,000 state grant to assist with planning.

Many people who spoke against the limit approved by city councilors Monday night said they wanted the council to wait until the committee finishes its work before they made any policy on cruise ship visits.

A harbor management plan — much like a municipal comprehensive plan — is not a strict set of policies that a city must follow. Rather, the harbor plan looks at the state of the harbor and a number of sectors that affect or make up the use of the harbor and offers guidance to city officials when making ordinances or policies going forward.

“It’s not an end-all, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ It’s a guide,” City Manager Tom Luttrell said.

Some of the major areas that the committee will look at when updating the harbor plan include cruise ship visitation, protection of public access and protection of the environment, according to City Councilor Ed Glaser, a member of the committee.

While the committee is still in the early stages of its work, Glaser said they’re currently working to draft questions that will be part of a study looking at the economic impact of cruise ships visiting Rockland.

Glaser voted against setting limits on cruise ships, saying that the harbor management plan committee should be allowed to do its work before the city sets policy on cruise ships.

“We formed a committee to do all of this research … and we are going back over this and having the City Council put down limits without having engaged the whole community in the discussion,” Glaser said.

After the committee completes a harbor management plan, and the plan is adopted by the City Council, the passenger limits set Monday will be replaced with the limits included the plan.

City officials hope that having an updated harbor management plan will help better guide the city when issues and debates such as that surrounding cruise ships come up in the future. While the City Council can enact short-term policies like the limit on cruise ship visits, a harbor plan can help provide long-term vision.

“These kinds of short-lived plans or policy statements come and go,” Glaser said. “Those are short-term things. We have to address the harbor in the long term.”

Glaser said it will take the committee between a year to a year and a half to finish updating the harbor management plan.

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