A tender ferries passengers back to the cruise ship Crystal Serenity as it sits anchored off Bar Harbor in Frenchman Bay. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

A Bar Harbor resident who successfully spearheaded a citizen’s referendum to sharply lower the limit on local cruise ship visits has been granted intervenor status in a federal lawsuit over the outcome of that vote.

The decision by federal Judge Lance Walker to grant Charles Sidman intervenor status, which will allow Sidman to submit arguments in the lawsuit, is the latest wrinkle in a long-running battle in Bar Harbor over how to manage cruise ship traffic. Some residents and business owners believe cruise ship visits provide a crucial economic benefit to the town, but others have become increasingly critical, saying that summertime throngs of cruise ship passengers hurt the local quality of life.

Sidman was the lead petitioner in the citizen’s initiative to cap visits by cruise ship passengers to no more than 1,000 per day, which was approved last November at the polls by a 507-vote margin — passing 1,780 to 1,273. The referendum result derailed a competing plan by town officials to limit passenger visits to 3,500 or 3,800 per day, depending on the time of year.

Following the ballot vote, a coalition of local businesses filed suit against the town in federal court seeking to overturn the result, which they said runs counter to the federal government’s jurisdiction over maritime traffic.

Sidman then filed for intervenor status in the lawsuit, arguing that town officials never wanted the 1,000-per-day passenger cap and likely would not adequately defend the voter-approved limit.

Walker agreed with Sidman, writing in his decision on Tuesday that over the past several years the town’s elected council has shown “a decidedly pro cruise ship sentiment” toward allowing local cruise ship traffic to grow.

“The Town’s Cruise Ship Committee has been chaired by an agent of a principal plaintiff and does not appear (at first blush) to have done anything other than foster the growth of cruise ship passenger traffic,” Walker wrote in the decision.

The judge’s indirect reference is to Eben Salvatore, who has long served on the committee and is director of operations for Bar Harbor Resorts, which owns the waterfront properties where passengers come and go from cruise ships anchored in Frenchman Bay.

In 2016, when there was a significant increase in cruise ship traffic, a total of 117 cruise ships carrying 163,000 passengers stopped in Bar Harbor, Walker wrote.

Local residents have become increasingly critical about the volume of cruise ships since then, Walker wrote, but nonetheless prior to the 2022 cruise ship season the town “authorized cruise ship visits totaling as many as 180,000 passengers for September and October alone.”

The judge noted that Sidman also owns commercial property in downtown Bar Harbor, and dismissed arguments that Sidman’s intervention is unnecessary because the town should and is expected to adequately defend the expressed will of the voters. Walker said that the town’s history of favoring the cruise ship industry undermines this argument.

“I find that the request for intervention is appropriate given the town’s history of boosterism for the cruise ship industry,” the judge wrote.

He added that “there is a strong showing in the record” that the town has given “carte blanche” over the town’s cruise ship policy to representatives of the business coalition that now is suing the town.

In the meantime, the coalition of businesses suing the town — which calls itself the Association to Preserve and Protect Local Livelihoods — is seeking a preliminary injunction to prevent the town from enforcing the 1,000 passengers-per-day limit while the lawsuit is pending in court.

The deadline for the town and Sidman to submit responses to the plaintiffs motion is March 20.

Avatar photo

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....