This 2013 file photo shows the MS Regatta cruise ship in Rockland Harbor. Credit: Stephen Betts | BDN

ROCKLAND, Maine ― The city will cap the number of large cruise ships that can visit Rockland Harbor annually under an updated plan that aims to promote tourism, while preserving the natural environment and peace of residents.

The new harbor management plan also prioritizes greater public access and infrastructure improvements for its harbor, which is a cornerstone of Rockland’s fishing and tourism economies.

The previous plan was developed 25 years ago, at a time when Rockland was trying to shed its gritty image and attract more cruise passengers. But priorities for the city have largely evolved since then.

“I think any community changes a lot over 20 or 25 years and some of your fundamental goals and objectives may stay the same and others may change with the changing times,” Rockland Community Development Director Julie Hashem said. “That’s why in an ideal world you’d update a planning document regularly.”

Rockland’s status as a tourist destination has boomed in the past decades, and large cruise ships have become more common in the harbor. Six large cruise ships were scheduled to visit Rockland Harbor this year, according to the new harbor management plan. Due to the pandemic, Maine has not seen any traffic from cruise ships carrying passengers in 2020.

While some downtown businesses have benefited from the increased traffic, residents worry the city would become a destination like Bar Harbor, where large cruise ships flock in normal years.

A committee was formed in March 2018 to update the city’s harbor management plan following debate over Rockland’s future as a destination for cruise ships. That same year, city council limited to six the number of cruise ships with 500 or more passengers that can visit Rockland Harbor annually. Those visits were confined to the months of September and October.

The new plan is aligned with those restrictions, but says the limit should be reviewed annually. It does not place limitations on cruise ships with fewer than 500 passengers.

Aside from cruise ship traffic, the harbor plan identifies public access for both recreational and commercial use as a top priority.

Public access is largely concentrated in the southern end of the harbor, around Harbor Park and the public landing. The new plan recommends opening access in the northern end of the harbor and better connecting existing access points in the southern end of the harbor between the public landing and a nearby city-owned pier.

In addition to direct access, the plan also indicates that views of the harbor should be preserved from multiple vantage points throughout the city.

The plan also calls for extending the existing Rockland Harbor Trail and establishing public bathrooms near the waterfront, and recommends more funding for maintenance and improvements to harbor infrastructure.