A seaside view of Bar Harbor, with a small cruise ship at the dock. Mount Desert Islander file photo

A group of businesses is suing the town of Bar Harbor, claiming that its new cap on the number of cruise ship passengers coming ashore is unconstitutional and will hurt the local economy.

The ordinance, which went into effect Dec. 8 following a November referendum, limits the number of passengers disembarking in Bar Harbor each day to 1,000. The cap was proposed in response to complaints about downtown congestion during Bar Harbor’s cruise season, when more than 150 ships – some carrying thousands of passengers – typically visit.

The cap “immediately renders the town an unviable destination port-of-call,” a complaint filed last week in Bangor federal court said. The plaintiff is a group representing Bar Harbor businesses, the owners of two piers that receive passengers, and the operators of three vessels that ferry passengers between the town and the cruise ships. The complaint asks that the ordinance be overturned but doesn’t seek any damages.

Bar Harbor has for years tried to promote itself as an attractive destination for cruise ships. The complaint notes that ship itineraries are planned years in advance and claims that the limit will lead cruise lines to shift their stops to other ports.

But residents said the number of ships and their passengers is overwhelming for the small town and only a small number of businesses benefit from the influx. The town last fall worked out an agreement with cruise lines to limit the number of ships that come into town.

Town Manager Kevin Sutherland said the agreement would cut the number of cruise ships in Bar Harbor during September and October – the two busiest months – by about 30%. Sutherland said the agreement, which would take full effect in 2024, would result in 22 days when there would be no cruise ships in town.


Sutherland said town officials were skeptical about enforcing the referendum’s limit on passengers, largely because they disembark ship tenders at privately owned docks where the town’s harbor master doesn’t have access. Sutherland also said there was much uncertainty about what town officials can do if the limit is violated.

However, the town’s official opposition didn’t stop residents from putting the 1,000-passenger cap on the fall ballot. The town’s planning board and the warrant committee, which oversees referendums in Bar Harbor, both urged voters to reject the measure, but it passed, 1,780-1,273.


Timothy Woodcock, a lawyer representing the businesses that sued the town, said the ordinance limiting the number of passengers disembarking violates federal law because it runs afoul of the U.S. Constitution by limiting freedom of movement.

The town cannot restrict how people get to Bar Harbor, he said, and maritime operations are primarily under federal control with few circumstances for local regulation.

A similar referendum went on the ballot last fall in Portland, proposed by the Maine Democratic Socialists of America. But that organization withdrew its support a few months before the vote after reaching an agreement with labor groups on steps to reduce cruise ship pollution and to increase waterfront jobs and pay.


That referendum also sought to limit disembarkations to 1,000 passengers a day, but voters rejected the proposal by more than a 2-1 ratio.

The Bar Harbor lawsuit also seeks an injunction against enforcement of the new cap because, Woodcock said, it would likely cause cruise lines to avoid Bar Harbor this year. He said cruise lines are reluctant to reschedule and if they drop Bar Harbor because of the cap, they’re unlikely to change back even if the lawsuit succeeds.

If the cruise lines were forced to steer past Bar Harbor, the complaint said, “it could take years to reestablish cruise line confidence in calling at the port of Bar Harbor.”

The Bar Harbor Town Council was scheduled to discuss the lawsuit in executive session Monday night.

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story