(Photo by Wendell Greer)
(Photo by Wendell Greer)
Rockland City Council voted 3-2 on Monday to impose a limit on the number of large cruise ships that can come into the harbor until a special ad hoc committee comes up with a new harbor management plan. The amended measure puts a daily cap of no more than two cruise ships with a maximum of 500 passengers for 10 months out of the year, from January to August and November to December. It also imposes a daily limit of 3,000 passengers and a total of no more than six ships from September to October.

Mayor Valli Geiger and Councilor Amelia Magjik voted for the ordinance and Councilors Ed Glaser and Lisa Westkaemper voted against it. In an effort to find a compromise, Adam Ackor sponsored an amendment to increase the daily passenger limit to 3,000, with a maximum of six ships, from the originally proposed 2,500 daily passenger cap and 9,000 two-month passenger limit in September and October. Six cruise ships arrived or are scheduled to arrive in Rockland this year, but only three have over 500 passengers. Two ships with just under 2,500 passengers are scheduled to arrive this September and October.

Mayor Geiger, the ordinance sponsor, noted that the city has never had more than eight cruise ships with over 500 passengers and the ordinance would not prevent more from coming, except for more than two in the same day. But she said the harbor facilities are not equipped to handle too many ships.

“It’s never about the people. It’s about the size of the ship facilities that we have available,” said Geiger. “We certainly don’t want to turn off that spigot. We need that money. We need that money to fix our harbors, to increase our bathrooms, to make this a more pleasurable place to visit, whether you come by land, by sea or by train.”

Speaking in favor of the ordinance, Bar Harbor resident Katherine Whitney said she drove all the way from Mount Desert Island to warn Rocklanders about the impact of too many cruise ships. Whitney, whose family owns a lodging business, argued that other tourists are avoiding that region due to the congestion caused by the sheer number of ship passengers arriving. Last year, the town received 185,000 passengers, and it expects 180 cruise ships this year.

“More people does not equal more profits. In fact it is just the reverse,” said Whitney. “Because it’s the land-based tourists who spend and the cruise ship passengers that do not. The congestion caused by the cruise ships turns land-based tourists away and therefore our businesses lose out.”

Rhonda Nordstrom, owner of Rheal Day Spa on Main Street, said that her business doesn’t benefit from cruise ships, as they have spas on board and sell the same products she does in their duty-free shops. But she said her regular clients avoid coming downtown when the cruise ships are in the harbor due to the passenger traffic.

“Truly if I had thought that Rockland … was going to be a cruise ship town I would not have brought my business here,” she said.

However, the Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce and several owners of downtown businesses — including The Grasshopper Shop, Fiore Olive Oils, Seagull Cottage, Estate Jewelry Emporium, Brass Compass and Schooner Bay Taxi — testified that cruise ship passengers are in fact spending money and helping them survive during the off-season months. Farnsworth Art Museum spokesman David Troup said the museum understood the fear that Rockland could become another Bar Harbor, but that there should be “a moderate approach” that allows larger ships on a limited basis.

“Between our two [large cruise ships] and Bar Harbor’s 180, there is a huge gap that is not about to change overnight,” said Troup. “Now is not the time for an outright ban of large cruise ships, but rather a time to find a measured approach for the future that works for us all.”

Former councilor Eric Hebert said that Rockland is fortunate to have become a destination point for tourism because when he grew up the downtown was “deader than dead” for most of the summer.

“I find it ironic that not too long ago the City Council passed an ordinance making Rockland a welcoming city,” he said. “Well, apparently, you’re welcomed here as long as you don’t come by boat.”

Councilor Ed Glaser said there is “widespread agreement” that there needs to be some form of limits on cruise ships, but expressed dismay that the ordinance sets a cap before the ad hoc Harbor Management Plan Committee can do its research. He argued that the council should focus more on specific problems cruise ships bring and create a clean-up plan or ban ships with bad environmental records.

“I think you look at the specific problems and you deal with them as individuals,” he said. “You don’t ban a whole class of vessels just because you’re basing it on information from 2004.”