Bar Harbor residents voted Tuesday to place tighter regulations on the cruise ship industry after years of complaints about overcrowding in the tourist mecca.
Voters passed a petition restricting the number of cruise ship passengers who can come ashore on any given day. The town will now allow no more than 1,000 people per day to disembark from cruise ships, though questions remain about enforcement.
The petition was brought forward by resident Charles Sidman and passed by a vote of 1,780 to 1,273.
The move, which could trigger a legal challenge from the cruise ship industry, comes after residents clearly voiced their displeasure with the amount of traffic coming to Bar Harbor, Maine’s busiest cruise ship port.
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A survey published in 2021 found that 55 percent of the nearly 1,400 responses thought cruise ships had a negative overall impact on the town. The same percentage said that cruise ships on the whole detracted from the attraction of Bar Harbor, one of Maine’s biggest tourism destinations and the gateway to Acadia National Park.
Cruise ships come to Bar Harbor annually from the spring through fall, with the busiest months usually in September and October. Before the pandemic, about 250,000 passengers could pull into Frenchman Bay aboard the floating hotels and some would disembark to explore downtown or hop on a bus to Acadia.
Complaints of overcrowding and congestion are the main complaints against cruise ships. Their environmental impact also has been raised.
In an attempt to address these, the town has made several changes to how cruise ships dock, and earlier this year made new agreements with the cruise lines to cut back on passenger counts.
But many in town, like Sidman, didn’t think this went far enough.
“There is a vast and deep feeling in the town that we have been overrun by cruise ship traffic,” Sidman said earlier this summer.
Before voting Tuesday, resident Matt Carroll said he favored the new restrictions to prevent the “Disney-fication” of downtown. He figured most of the financial benefits only made it to a few shops and didn’t really help the town as a whole.
“The economic benefits are pretty limited,” he said.
Sidman hopes that the town would establish a process to enforce the new restrictions, but the town currently does not count how many people get off cruise lines and only tracks passengers and berth capacities in agreements with the industry.
The citizen initiative provides for a gradual transition because it does not apply to any cruise ship bookings made prior to this spring, when the petition was filed. Bookings are often made at least 18 months in advance.
Residents also voted to get rid of the Planning Board’s ability to require a two-thirds majority threshold from voters on amendments to the land-use ordinance that the board opposes. The issue became a hot topic in town after the passage of restrictions on short-term rentals. There was a question whether those rules needed to pass by the two-thirds threshold.
Voters also voted against allowing recreational marijuana shops in Bar Harbor for the first time. There is only one other recreational shop in Hancock County, and a local spa has been pushing for Bar Harbor to allow the businesses in certain zones.