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Stormy seas for cruise ships in Bar Harbor

Local businesses challenge voter-approved limit on passengers on Mount Desert Island

Early-morning light illuminatee shops on Main Street in Bar Harbor, Maine.Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

BAR HARBOR, Maine — Even in the dead of winter, when windswept sidewalks are deserted and there is ample elbow room at local restaurant tables, the breathtaking natural beauty of this vacation paradise loses little of its gravitational pull.

Sweeping ocean vistas. Snow-dusted pine trees. Cadillac Mountain, as ever, a breathtaking, towering presence in the near distance.

But now, in the frigid air of a fresh new year, there is something else along Maine’s craggy coast: a high-stakes, deeply emotional dispute over an effort to restrict the flow of what many people consider the economic lifeblood of Bar Harbor.

A new ordinance went into effect early last month that limits the number of passengers who can disembark in Bar Harbor each day to 1,000, a response to complaints that more than 150 cruise ships were overwhelming this picturesque port during the cruise season.


Local voters last fall approved the cap by a vote of 1,780 to 1,273, despite efforts by the town’s planning board and warrant committee, which urged the local electorate to reject it.

Charles Sidman, who spent his career as a biomedical researcher, led the effort behind the citizens’ petition in part, he said, because the cruise ship industry “is causing enormous damage’' to Bar Harbor.

“They’ve had totally improper monopolies granted by the town and they want to protect them,’' Sidman told me. “And the rest of the town and the other businesses are suffering. On a busy cruise ship day here, it’s like Times Square.’'

Now, a group of local businesses has filed a lawsuit.

Officials are pondering what this new economic landscape might look like because the smaller ships with 1,000 or fewer guests account for just 5 percent of the annual ship schedule.

And residents are beginning to consider what life might look like later this year when those big ships keep on sailing on the Atlantic instead of anchoring off of Bar Harbor.


“We’ve built our town on wanting the tourists to come,’’ said Kristi Bond, owner of FishMaine Restaurant Group and president of the Association to Preserve & Protect Local Livelihoods.

“Our town economy is getting 20 to 30 million dollars pumped into it with these people coming to our town,’’ she said. “They come at 8 in the morning and they’re gone at 5 o’clock at night. I just don’t understand how it makes sense to anyone.’’

Neither does Kevin DesVeaux, proprietor of the West Street Café, where you can get a cup of clam chowder for $7, a burger for $13, and some words of worry from the man behind the counter who’s responsible for balancing the books.

“I’m concerned that without the cruise ships coming back that there’s no way to profitability for us,’’ DesVeaux told me the other day. “There’s really no point for us to be open for lunch for two months. The only time we’re profitable is July and August when we get a lot of day-trippers and all the hotels are full.’'

He paused and then added: “Having the cruise ships in the spring allows us to open the restaurant earlier in the season. The cruise ships in the fall allows us to extend our season and enables us to achieve profitability.’'

We spoke the other day at a front table in his restaurant overlooking the ship landing.


“I don’t like the way people have painted the cruise ship people as being like they’re evil,’’ he said. “Like they’re coming out of a Stephen King novel or something. A majority of these people coming in here are seasoned travelers. They dine well. They spend well. They come in and leave quickly.

“As a restaurant business, you couldn’t ask for a better clientele than that. They’ll come in and have a couple of glasses of wine, put down a lobster roll, and out the door they go. They don’t linger. That’s why you can move so many more people on a cruise ship. They’re task-driven.’’

And soon those able to make the trip will have more space to enjoy the views and hike the trails along Frenchman Bay.

Kevin Sutherland, Bar Harbor’s town manager, said local frustration with congestion was the chief propellent for the new ordinance that took effect Dec. 8, a move local businesses fighting the measure have said immediately renders the town an unviable destination port-of-call.

“What was Yogi Berra’s statement?’’ Sutherland asked when I stopped by for a visit the other day. “ ‘This place is too crowded. Nobody goes there anymore’? That’s what this is all about really.’’

It’s been a long and interesting municipal journey, he said.

“For years, if you look at the cruise ship visits from the early 2000s, this community embraced and actually went out and asked the cruise ships to start doing tours in the Northeast,’’ Sutherland said.


But over time, some residents say, it has all become simply overwhelming.

“It’s harder to get to the grocery store,’’ said Sutherland, voicing the view of opponents. “It’s harder to get to the post office. If I needed something off Main Street or I wanted to go out for dinner with my family, I might be waiting in line. If you’re a resident of a town of 5,000, it seems like a challenge.’’

And there’s a lot at stake. The town receives passenger fees. If a 2,000-passenger boat shows up, the town collects about $5 per lower-berth capacity of that boat.

“So, the town gets $10,000 for that boat,’’ he said, noting that amounts to a million dollars a year.

“A million dollars has a big impact on our ability to hire a harbor master and his staff,’’ Sutherland said. “It allows us to address some of our capital needs. It takes care of our sidewalk work. It takes care of some of our downtown aesthetics.’’

To say it’s the talk of the town would be an understatement, he said.

“This is the only thing I’ve been dealing with for almost a year,’’ Sutherland told me. “I’ve done a lot for this town. We — the Council and I — have done a lot to address what the town needs. But this has risen to a level of conversation and concern beyond any other item.’’

Kristi Bond has heard those conversations and weighed those concerns.

“The post office, the grocery store, the drug store — those places are getting an influx of business as well,’’ she said. “The taxis. You name it. They’re all getting business from anybody who comes here. Whether they come in a car or a bus or however they came.


“But what we know from the past is that the shoulder seasons are the hardest to attract guests. And that’s why in the 1990s the town went out and tried to figure out a way to get more people here in the shoulder season. And the cruise ships started coming here.’’

All of that is now on the local agenda, the topic of dinner-table conversations, fodder for urgent debate.

“I’m not a sky’s-the-limit person,’’ Kevin DesVeaux at the West Street Café told me. “I realize you can’t have three cruise ships in the harbor. It doesn’t work well. I’m for reasonable limits. Putting two, 5,000-passenger cruise ships in the harbor is just not going to work for anybody.

“But the numbers that the cruise ship committee came up with were working well before this petition came along. And the town was handling that well.’’

But now, new rules are on the book.

And those behind the counters and at the cash registers of local businesses say Bar Harbor’s economic future is hanging in the balance.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at