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Bar Harbor voters approve major reductions to cruise ship passengers

A tender boat approaches alongside the Nieuw Statendum, a 2,666-passenger cruise ship, which anchored in Frenchman's Bay off Bar Harbor.
Nicole Ogrysko
Maine Public
A tender boat approaches alongside the Nieuw Statendum, a 2,666-passenger cruise ship, which anchored in Frenchman's Bay off Bar Harbor.

Bar Harbor voters have approved a citizens petition that will limit the number of cruise ship passengers who can disembark to 1,000 a day — despite attempts by town officials to convince residents of smaller reductions that they had recently enacted.

The referendum received 58% of the vote in Bar Harbor. Portland voters soundly rejected a similar initiative Tuesday.

The new referendum changes Bar Harbor's land use ordinance and creates a process for issuing permits to town property owners to accept passengers, no more than 1,000 each day.

The harbor master will have to establish a reservation system for cruise ships that transport passengers to town and a mechanism for counting and tracking people who disembark.

Tuesday's outcome came after months of debate over cruise ships and tourism capacity in Bar Harbor. Those who supported the initiative said town officials hadn't done enough to address their concerns about over-crowding and congestion, particularly on days when multiple large ships anchored in Frenchman Bay. Some local businesses were highly critical of both plans for reducing cruise ships.

"We now have the opportunity to make Bar Harbor and Bar Harbor tourism and business far more sustainable, even-handed and beneficial," Charlie Sidman, the lead organizer behind the cruise ship initiative, said Wednesday morning.

Bar Harbor Town Manager Kevin Sutherland called the cruise ship outcome "unfortunate."

"My conversations with the industry is that over time, they'll just stop coming to Bar Harbor, unless they are building smaller ships sooner," he said. "That 1,000-passenger cap is really hard to implement from an industry line. How do you tell your passengers, sorry, you can get off, but you can't?"

Town officials have said they believe the referendum will bring lawsuits against Bar Harbor, a possibility that Sutherland recognized Wednesday morning.

"Until I know more specifically whether or not this is going to be challenged, I have to assume that we are going to have to move forward with bringing on additional staff to help count passengers as they come on to Bar Harbor land," he said.

The town will also need to hire an additional code enforcement officer to oversee the new ship policy, Sutherland added.

But if there are lawsuits against Bar Harbor over the new initiative, Sidman is confident the town will prevail.

"Our path may not be clear sailing, but we've gotten further than anyone else, and the world has taken notice," he said. "We're going to get a lot of support. The harder the industry fights against the decision of our citizenry, the more damage they're going to do themselves. If we have to fight that next phase of a longer war we will, and we will win that one as well."

The town enacted its own ship management plan over the summer, which was born from negotiations with the cruise lines over the last several months.
Timing was not on the town's side, Sutherland acknowledged, as councilors didn't approve that plan until well into the summer. Residents never experienced the town's planned reductions.

It would have imposed daily passenger limits of 3,800 people, with the exception of July and August, when daily caps of 3,500 people would be in effect. It also set monthly caps on cruise ship passengers.