A group of Bar Harbor businesses is suing the vacation hotspot, claiming the town’s new restrictions on cruise ship passengers break federal law.
The lawsuit, which was filed against the town in Maine federal court late last month, is challenging the 1,000-person daily disembarkation limit that Bar Harbor voters passed in the November election. Several businesses directly tied to cruise ship tourism argue the town is overstepping its authority by enacting the limit and have asked a judge to overturn the local regulation.
Most town officials expected a lawsuit after the ordinance, which was enacted through a citizen’s initiative, passed easily. The challenge could finally settle the local battle over the amount of cruise ship tourism in Bar Harbor, the state’s busiest cruise ship port.
The plaintiffs include BH Piers and Golden Anchor, both of which operate the local piers that take cruise ship passengers ashore; a company that runs cruise ship tender boats; Bar Harbor Whale Watch; and the Association to Preserve and Protect Local Livelihoods, a nonprofit comprised of business owners in town.
The 1,000-passenger disembarkation cap in the town’s land use ordinance undermines the federal government’s jurisdiction over maritime activity, according to the businesses. Only federal agencies can direct vessels where they can and can’t operate, and local laws that ban federally licensed vessels violate the U.S. Supremacy Clause, the suit asserted.
Aside from allegedly circumventing the law, the ordinance will also hurt several businesses in town that rely on cruise ship passengers and render Bar Harbor an unviable port-of-call because cruise lines don’t want to book ports where passengers can’t be disembark, according to the suit filed on Dec. 29.
About 250,000 cruise ship passengers came to Bar Harbor in 2019, a fraction of the millions of visitors that flock to the island and Acadia National Park in the summer.
Not all passengers end up coming ashore, but the town has not previously tracked how many do. Under the new ordinance, the town is supposed to come up with a system that would keep a count and hold it to 1,000 passengers daily. The lawsuit claims that about 2,000 to 4,500 tourists get off the boats and go into town.
Though the town worked hard to attract cruise ships decades ago, many residents have grown tired of the additional tourists being added to an already overflowing downtown.
A 2021 survey of nearly 1,400 people in town found that 55 percent saw cruise ships as having a negative overall impact on the town. The same percentage though that the ships detract from the image and attraction of Bar Harbor.
Seeing those numbers, the Town Council instituted new passenger caps in 2022 after negotiations with the cruise lines. The council caps allowed no more than 3,800 passengers daily in May, June, September and October. July and August would be limited to 3,500 per day. That cap didn’t limit disembarkings.
Voters didn’t seem to think they went far enough, though, and the disembarkation limit passed 1,780 to 1,273.
Charles Sidman, the Bar Harbor resident who spearheaded the new limits, said he didn’t want to see Bar Harbor become a tourist trap that just happened to have some residences.
“We think we have the right to determine our own environment and fate,” he said.
He planned to file his own brief in the lawsuit because he was concerned about how vehemently the town would defend the new limits, which some leaders had warned against its implementing in the lead up to the election.
The businesses have asked a judge to grant an injunction against the new restrictions, which affect all bookings after March 2022.
Bar Harbor Town Manager Kevin Sutherland and council chair Valerie Peacock did not immediately return a request for comment Tuesday.