Lawsuit Force Town To Navigate Rough Waters
BAR HARBOR—During its meeting Thursday night, the town’s Cruise Ship Committee asked Town Manager Kevin Sutherland about the current state of the 2023 and 2024 cruise ship seasons and what impact the new disembarkation 1,000-person daily limit and resulting lawsuit would have on those seasons.
Sutherland said that on Tuesday the Town Council met with legal counsel to start trying to determine how to navigate the lawsuit. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit also filed a preliminary injunction that would keep the town’s other pre-vote disembarkation limit in place for 2023 and beyond while the lawsuit is being addressed.
An injunction is an order of the court and it keeps an entity like Bar Harbor (or a person) from doing a certain act or it can compel them to do something.
“The council hasn’t decided if it’s going to fight the injunction or explore the injunction,” Sutherland said.
The lawsuit was filed in December in federal court and served to the town last Friday. The lawsuit challenges the voter-approved (1,780 to 1,273) limit that changes how the town limits and counts people disembarking from cruise ships. At least one of the Cruise Ship Committee member’s employers (BH Piers and Golden Anchor) is party to the lawsuit, and he is also part of APPLL, a new nonprofit group of businesses (The Association to Preserve and Protect Local Livelihoods or APPLL) that supports the suit and is a plaintiff.
Sutherland told the committee that the memorandum of agreements that the town created to limit cruise ship passengers each month just prior to the citizens’ petition that passed this November had given the town 22 cruise ship free days in October and September, which Sutherland said created some breathing room that many in the town had been looking for. All the cruise lines had signed and agreed to those documents and reductions.
With the MOA process, at the end of every season, the town would review how the season went and potentially modify the season, Sutherland said. Those agreements established the 2023 and 2024 seasons but not the 2025 season. All the cruise ships that had booked prior to March 17, 2022 are grandfathered in despite the petition’s passage. Visits booked after that are at risk. Sutherland said that is about 40 ships in the upcoming season. The first appears in early May.
“I have informed him that this is out there and that we are still working through the rules and regulations that aren’t (yet in place or written),” he said. “Until those rules are in place, we can’t enforce the ordinance.”
He added that he’s trying to minimize the number of lawsuits the town may have to face.
“I’m trying to navigate these really rough waters. I don’t have answers,” Sutherland said.
Committee member Sandy McFarland said that he remembered the fall of 1947 when the great fire ravaged Mount Desert Island. “Everyone in town was gathered at the town pier for the Navy, for a ship that never arrived.”
His father was the chair of the selectmen. Bar Harbor was destitute at the time, he said. After the fire, he said, they wanted to get people here and worked to do so.
“We are a business community. We are a resort community,” he said. “There has to be a sense of balance.”
“It was probably the best summer in terms of controlling that process that we’ve had,” he added, mentioning the disembarkation process and loading which occurred at private property of BH Piers and Golden Anchor, which is where tenders disembark passengers.
What Bar Harbor does with cruise ships affects the coast of Maine, not just Mount Desert Island, Sutherland said.
“Even that 30% reduction for 2023 and 2024 has impacted towns like Portland who are feeling overwhelmed themselves,” Sutherland said. Small communities in Canada whose only economy is cruise ships coming in, he said. “It impacts their small towns. I don’t want to take away the value of the residents here, he added, but said, “This is bigger than Bar Harbor.”
He believes that additional lawsuits from ports or lines are a likely outcome.
“That’s why I spent so much time negotiating with the lines,” for the MOAs and passenger caps, he said. He said the town was trying to take away some of the pressure of cruise ship tourist congestion without undermining the cruise lines expectations or relationships with other communities.
Because what is happening with cruise ship fees and visitations is not yet settled (due to the injunction and lawsuit,” he could potentially submit two or three budgets to the council based on different outcomes.
“It’s a weird time to be the town manager of Bar Harbor,” Sutherland said.
McFarland said that he had asked the previous town manager what would happen if cruise ships were gone and he had told him that taxes would go up.
In other business, the committee unanimously elected Jeremy Dougherty to be its secretary because the town doesn’t have the staff to continue to take the level of minutes, Chair Martha Searchfield said.
The committee also discussed its annual report, which is still in the draft stages, in-town cruise ship passenger drop-offs, and whether cruise ship fees paid to the town per passenger should only go up 6% for cost of living increases or more.
Dougherty said that with 7.5% inflation across the country, “I think it would be very odd to not ask for a rate increase when everything else in business has gone up.”
Amy Powers, a non-voting member who fills the committee’s requirement of a “representative with knowledge of cruise ship industry in the State of Maine,” said that the port fee is fixed and added on top of the cruise price and is charged to cruise ship passengers not the cruise ships. Passengers often buy their tickets 18 months prior to the cruise. She stressed that as soon as fee and budget decisions are made that those decisions are communicated immediately.
Sutherland would like recommendations from the group to give to the council by the last meeting in February.
LINKS TO LEARN MORE
BAR HARBOR—The first lawsuit contesting the town’s new cruise ship disembarkation plan has been filed and it wasn’t by the Maine Pilot’s Association, but by a group of local businesses that have collectively brought legal action against the citizens’ initiative that passed in November…
You can see the filing to U.S. District Court here.
For more information you can visit the APPLL website at www.appllbh.org
Many apologies for the late filing of this story. I had seven client deadlines (I edit books along with writing them) today and had to make that a priority because it’s a big part of how I make my living. Thank you so much for hopefully understanding.
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