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Bar Harbor citizens petition sparks latest debate over cruise ships

Bill Trotter
Bangor Daily News

Bar Harbor residents are considering a citizens petition to limit cruise ships in the town.

The topic was once again up for discussion at a town council meeting Tuesday evening.

The proposed citizens petition is complex, but in its simplest form would limit the number of cruise ship passengers entering Bar Harbor to 1,000 people a day through changes to the town's land use ordinance.

A group of Bar Harbor residents who launched the citizens initiative said cruise ship passengers overwhelm the town, and they believe local officials haven't acted quickly enough to quell their concerns.

"There's a vast and deep feeling in the town that we have been overrun by cruise ship traffic, that it exceeds our carrying capacity, it impairs our public safety and health and it damages our economy by focusing too much on a sector of the economy," Charles Sidman, the lead organizer of the citizens petition, said at Tuesday's town council meeting.

The town heard from nearly two dozen people Tuesday night, including two Bangor attorneys who said they reviewed the proposed ordinance and believe it poses serious legal concerns.

A few local residents said they support the petition because they're concerned about large ships polluting Frenchman Bay.

But others, including West Street Café owner Kevin DesVeaux, said his local businesses depend on cruise ship passengers.

"This is not a collaboration. This is an outright ban of cruise ships," he said. "And for us, it's 30 to 35% of our business. And I see no way to profitability for all of our businesses, and the 60 people that we employ."

Several local business owners said they hear from ship passengers who discover Bar Harbor when they stop in town for a day on their cruise but return for longer trips next summer.

And one Bar Harbor resident urged the town to think about cruise ships as part of a larger discussion about the community's carrying capacity.

"I think it's time we started to figure out what kind of town we want it to be. How big can it be? How do we keep people employed in year-round jobs and not seasonal jobs so that we can have a stable community?"

Town councilors said Tuesday that they need more time to consider the legal questions the attorneys recently raised.

"The petitioners and people who are in favor of the petition I know that they may be a little upset with us for not going ahead and putting it on the warrant tonight, but I hope they understand that if there is any question about the legality we need to know," said Matthew Hochman, the council's vice chairman. "We're not trying to circumvent their efforts; we just need to make sure we're doing this the right way."

Councilors will decide in the coming weeks whether to place the proposal on the town ballot in November, where voters would weigh in on the citizens initiative.

Bar Harbor has been debating limitations on cruise ships for years. A few town councilors have been negotiating with the cruise ship industry behind closed doors for several months now, hoping to agree on new ship limits for future seasons.

Bar Harbor town manager Kevin Sutherland said Wednesday that he will present a proposal born from those negotiations to the town council sometime next month.