The Adventure of the Seas provides the backdrop for a couple snapping a self-portrait along Bar Harbor’s waterfront in 2018. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Bar Harbor voters may 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 it makes it to the ballot, town officials will weigh the impact of a potential legal challenge and questions about how it would be enforced. And those same issues could soon be raised in Portland, where activists hope to force a similar citywide referendum.

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

“The cruise ship industry is like a cancer,” Sidman said, and he wants to rein it in with the limit on 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 leaf-peep from the sea and pop in on seaside towns oozing New England charm and inexpensive sweatshirts. They also provide a shoulder season burst of business for restaurants, souvenir shops and other tourist draws, with dozens of ships depositing thousands of passengers for a day on land.

Sidman said he doesn’t have anything against cruises in general, having gone on a few himself, but ships that deposit 3,000 passengers on a small town are overwhelming.


“It’s too much of a good thing,” he said.

He circulated a petition to change the city’s land-use code to cap daily visitors from cruise ships at 1,000 and got more than the 300 signatures needed to put a referendum on the ballot in November.

But the Town Council is concerned that its passage will simply land Bar Harbor in an expensive legal battle with deep-pocketed cruise industry lawyers. The council is scheduled to meet next week to talk to the town lawyer about whether it is required to put the measure on the ballot.

In the meantime, the town’s manager has been negotiating with cruise industry representatives and says he’s worked out a compromise that he will present to the council next week. The proposal would limit the number of passengers visiting Bar Harbor to around 4,000 a day in the fall and Town Manager Kevin Sutherland said that would help cut down on the influx while averting the threat of a lawsuit.

Sutherland said Sidman’s proposal will create problems, particularly since it puts enforcement in the hands of the town’s harbor master or code enforcement officer. Neither office has any experience policing large crowds of people to make sure that 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 this? It would require additional people.”



Bar Harbor has seen the whipsaw of the cruise industry in the past three years. In 2020, the industry was shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic and it struggled back to a limited schedule last year, but hopes to come roaring back this year. Starting later this week, dozens of ships are scheduled to stop in Bar Harbor before the end of the New England cruising season 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 aboard.

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 been under fire for years for dumping garbage and sewage at sea and for promoting over-tourism in parts of the world. In Maine, questions have been raised about how much of an economic impact it really has and Bar Harbor is not alone in considering curbs on the business. 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 Harbor referendum. He said the Democratic Socialists followed his approach by adopting the 1,000 daily limit for the Portland proposal.

The Portland City Clerk has certified that the referendum has enough valid signatures to be put on the ballot, a move the City Council is expected to confirm on Aug. 8, along with other proposed referendum questions. Portland officials said they haven’t heard anyone raise constitutional issues about the cruise ship referendum in the city.


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

Bar Harbor will have most of the larger ships drop anchor behind Bar Island this summer and fall, hoping to minimize the effect of the large ships looming over the town. Town Councilor Jeff Dobbs said he hopes that has the psychological effect of easing the feeling of being overwhelmed by the ships, since “you can’t see them from in-town.”

But, Dobbs said, the issue has been percolating in Bar Harbor for several years and the impact of the pandemic only delayed tackling it.

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


But Sidman’s solution, Dobbs said, may not be the best cure for Bar Harbor, and the town doesn’t have unlimited power over cruise ships, which are largely regulated by the federal government.


Dobbs said there’s concern that capping the number of passengers that can come ashore when a ship visits may be an unconstitutional restriction on commerce, but the council doesn’t know if it has to put the proposal out for a vote anyway given that the signatures are valid.

Sidman said such concerns are “irrelevant distractions.”

He said he worked with a lawyer in drafting the initiative to make sure the town wasn’t infringing on federal oversight of shipping, and the proposal also lifts the limits for cruise lines that have already signed contracts with the town for future visits. He said there are contracts in place for some cruise lines that run until 2030.

Sidman said the changes the town has made for this year are “really cosmetic” and won’t avert occasions when there are more than 6,000 passengers from multiple cruise ships heading ashore.

That’s good business for the ice cream and T-shirt shops, Sidman said, but an overall negative for Bar Harbor because the big crowds scare off visitors coming in by land who, he said, tend to patronize more businesses without overwhelming the town.

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


Sidman also dismisses the threat of a lawsuit, including one by Andrew Hamilton, a lawyer for B.H. Piers, a company that owns property in Bar Harbor and opposes the proposed limit on cruise ship visitors.

In a letter to the town, Hamilton said the proposed limit is “completely arbitrary,” is “lacking any justification” and “presents an unworkable, unconstitutional, discriminatory and unlawful policy.”

Hamilton also told the council that it has the power to decline to send a referendum question to voters if it’s unconstitutional or otherwise invalid, an assertion that spurred the Town Council to schedule the meeting next week with its lawyer.

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

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