Bar Harbor struggles with cruise ship limits, and Portland could be next

The adventure of the seas serves as the backdrop for a couple taking a selfie along the Bar Harbor waterfront in 2018. Gregory Rec / Personal Photographer

Bar Harbor voters could decide in November whether to impose a 1,000-person-a-day limit on visits to the town by cruise ship passengers and crew.

But before he goes to the polls, city officials will weigh the impact of a potential legal challenge and consider how it would be enforced. And those same issues could soon be raised in Portland, where activists hope to force a similar referendum across the city.

Charles Sidman, a venture capital fund founder and 40-year resident of the town of Mount Desert Island who led the petition effort, blames cruise ships for various ills, from overcrowding his town of 5,500 locals to water pollution and creating a schlocky tourist trap atmosphere.

“The cruise ship industry is like a cancer,” Sidman said, and he wants to get it under control by limiting shore visits.

Bar Harbor and Portland have become popular destinations for large cruise ships, particularly in the early fall when they ply the waters off New England and Canada, allowing passengers to take a peek eye from the sea and travel to seaside towns with New England charm and low cost. sweatshirts. They also provide a burst of shoulder-season business for restaurants, souvenir shops and other tourist attractions, with dozens of ships dropping off thousands of passengers for a day ashore.

Sidman said he has nothing against cruises in general, having done a few cruises himself, but ships that drop 3,000 passengers in a small town are overwhelming.

“It’s too good a thing,” he said.

He circulated a petition to change the city’s land use code to limit the number of daily cruise ship visitors to 1,000 and secured more than 300 signatures needed to put a referendum on the ballot in November .

But the city council fears passing it will simply land Bar Harbor in a costly legal battle with deep-pocketed cruise industry lawyers. Council is due to meet next week to discuss with the city attorney whether to put the measure on the ballot.

In the meantime, the city manager has negotiated with representatives of the cruise industry and says he has worked out a compromise which he will present to council next week. The proposal would limit the number of passengers visiting Bar Harbor to around 4,000 a day in the fall and City Manager Kevin Sutherland said it would help reduce the influx while avoiding the threat of a lawsuit.

Sutherland said Sidman’s proposal will create problems, especially since it puts enforcement in the hands of the harbor master or city code enforcement officer. Neither office has experience monitoring large crowds of people to ensure visitor limits are not exceeded, he said.

“Regardless of whether or not it’s invalid or illegal, it’s really bad policy,” Sutherland said. “How would we enforce that? This would require additional people.


Bar Harbor has seen the cruise industry up and down over the past three years. In 2020, the industry was shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic and it struggled to return to a limited schedule last year, but hopes to come back strong this year. Starting later this week, dozens of ships are expected to stop in Bar Harbor before the New England cruise season ends in early November.

Some of the ships are smaller, carrying several hundred passengers, but Bar Harbor also gets its share of huge cruise ships, some with up to 4,000 passengers on board.

The cruise ships Grandeur of the Seas, left, and Victory 1 dock at Ocean Gateway in Portland in May 2018.

The cruise industry itself had come under fire for years for dumping garbage and sewage at sea and for encouraging overtourism in some parts of the world. In Maine, questions have been raised about its real economic impact and Bar Harbor is not alone in considering curbing activity. A petition to limit passengers visiting Portland to 1,000 a day will likely be on the ballot in November.

The Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America is pushing for a Portland referendum on cruise ship limits and Sidman said he spoke with leaders of that group about how he crafted the Bar referendum. Harbour. He said the Democratic Socialists followed his approach in adopting the daily limit of 1,000 for Portland’s proposal.

Portland’s city clerk has certified that the referendum has enough valid signatures to be put on the ballot, a decision the city council is expected to confirm Aug. 8, along with other proposed referendum questions. Portland officials said they haven’t heard from anyone raising constitutional issues about the cruise ship referendum in the city.

Bar Harbor has already taken steps to try to mitigate the impact of cruise ships this year. The ships will begin arriving in earnest in Bar Harbor on Thursday, when two vessels – with a combined capacity of more than 3,000 passengers – will call. One, the Norwegian Pearl, is expected to arrive from Bermuda with 2,376 passengers.

Bar Harbor will see most of the larger ships drop anchor behind Bar Island this summer and fall, hoping to minimize the effect of large ships threatening the town. Councilman Jeff Dobbs said he hoped it would have the psychological effect of lessening the feeling of being overwhelmed by ships because “you can’t see them from the city”.

But, Dobbs said, the problem has been festering in Bar Harbor for several years, and the impact of the pandemic has only delayed its resolution.

“We’ve been talking about it for several years now,” he said. “Three ship days are the problem.”


But Sidman’s solution, Dobbs said, may not be the best medicine for Bar Harbor, and the city doesn’t have unlimited power over cruise ships, which are largely federally regulated.

Dobbs said he fears capping the number of passengers who can disembark when visiting a ship is an unconstitutional restriction on trade, but the board is unsure whether he should take the proposal to a panel anyway. vote given that the signatures are valid.

Sidman said such concerns are “irrelevant distractions.”

He said he worked with a lawyer to draft the initiative to ensure the city didn’t violate federal shipping oversight, and the proposal also lifts limits for cruise lines that have already signed contracts. with the city for future visits. He said there were contracts in place for some cruise lines that last until 2030.

Sidman said the city’s changes for this year are “really cosmetic” and won’t avoid occasions when more than 6,000 passengers from multiple cruise ships disembark.

It’s good business for ice cream parlors and T-shirt shops, Sidman said, but an overall downside for Bar Harbor because large crowds scare off visitors arriving by land who he said have tendency to patronize more businesses without overwhelming the city.

“You can’t walk on the sidewalk, you can’t get into stores because of the huge queues,” he said.

Sidman also rejects the threat of a lawsuit, including one by Andrew Hamilton, an attorney for BH Piers, a company that owns property in Bar Harbor and opposes the proposed limit on cruise ship visitors.

In a letter to the city, Hamilton said the proposed limit is “completely arbitrary”, “has no justification” and “presents an unworkable, unconstitutional, discriminatory and illegal policy”.

Hamilton also told council he had the power to refuse to send a referendum question to voters if it was unconstitutional or otherwise invalid, a claim that prompted council to schedule the meeting next week with his lawyer.

Hamilton said the petitioners can go to court themselves if the council refuses to send the referendum to voters and Sidwell said he would if the council blocks a vote on his proposal.

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