Bar Harbor voters will decide this fall whether to cap the number of people who get off cruise ships in the vacation hotspot.
The Town Council voted Tuesday to place a citizen’s initiative on the November town meeting warrant that would allow for no more than 1,000 people per day to disembark from cruise ships.
Bar Harbor has been struggling with its status as the premier cruise ship destination in New England in recent years.
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Many people in town believe the cruise ships have a negative impact on the community and officials have pondered ways to cut down on the additional crush of people that course through downtown when a cruise ship is in the harbor.
The initiative was proposed by Bar Harbor resident Charles Sidman and was one of two reduction plans heard by the council Tuesday. A second plan by town staff has higher daily cap limits and would be enacted through agreements with the cruise lines. That could be enacted by the council in the coming months.
Sidman’s is drafted as an amendment to the town’s ordinances and has drawn concerns by council members who believe it exceeds the town’s authority to regulate the water. Some town officials worry that they can’t unilaterally impose limits on the number of passengers or cruise ships that enter Frenchman Bay and would rather work with the industry to achieve reductions.
Nevertheless, the council felt it was bound to follow the citizen’s initiative process and voted to move it forward after a 30-minute closed door discussion with the town attorney.
“We’ve received competing advice from multiple lawyers about the legality of managing cruise ship visitation through this land use ordinance amendment,” said Val Peacock, the council chair. “On the advice of our town’s legal team and with respect to the citizen’s initiative process, I’m voting to move the petition forward to the warrant.”
After the council placed Sidman’s proposal on the warrant, Bar Harbor town manager Kevin Sutherland presented his reduction plan that could skirt potential legal challenges because it has the backing of the cruise ship industry.
Sutherland’s plan would implement daily and monthly passenger caps, as well as limiting the number of cruise ships per day in town.
In May, June, September and October there could be no more than 3,800 passengers per day, according to the plan. July and August would be limited to 3,500 per day.
May and June could have no more than a total of 30,000 passengers per month. July and August would be capped at 40,000 and September and October at 65,000.
Cruise ships would not be allowed at all in April and November — months that historically get little to no traffic already — and there could be no more than three cruise ships per day throughout the year.
Bar Harbor currently has passenger caps of 3,500 per day in the summer and 5,500 during the shoulder season.
Sutherland urged his route because the industry is already on board with the terms and the town would get signed agreements from each line, giving the town stronger authority in the matter.
“I believe we’ve developed a path forward with the industry that results in fewer ships, smaller ships and some days off,” he said.
The council is scheduled to talk about Sutherland’s plan again later this month.
Even council member Jill Goldthwait, who has called for some of the council’s most drastic cuts to cruise ship traffic, was supportive of Sutherland’s plan.
“I don’t love all of it,” she said. “But I think we came a very long way.”