The Portland Board of Harbor Commissioners did not have enough evidence to justify a steep hike in harbor pilot fees for large ships last November, according to a state judge.

In a ruling Friday, Superior Court Justice Lance Walker called the sudden fee increase approved by the commission a “red flag” and vacated the board’s vote.

Board members voted in November to set a minimum fee of $1,077 per trip in and out of the harbor for large vessels after reviewing pilot fees charged at other ports in the Northeast.

That fee replaced a $1,200-per-trip fee – almost twice the $709-per-trip fee charged the year before – the board approved in May 2017 at the request of the Portland Pilots, the company that guides large ships into port.

Bay Ferries Ltd., the Canadian company that operates a ferry between Portland and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, had challenged that decision on the grounds the board did not follow proper legal procedures before setting the new rate.

Harold Pachios, a partner at Preti Flaherty representing Bay Ferries, declined to comment Monday.

Walker, in his ruling, said the board could not know if the fee increase was justified because it never asked for the Portland Pilots financial records to find out how much it costs to run the service.

“The only means by which the board can confidently determine a just and reasonable fee is to examine, among other things, the costs of providing pilotage services in Portland Harbor in relation to how much income pilots stand to generate given a particular fee scheme and the number and types of vessels calling upon this port,” Walker concluded.

The Pilots had told board members they needed higher fees to support their business, which has struggled as large ship traffic to Portland Harbor declined in recent years.

Without looking at the company’s records, there is no way board members could know if that is the truth, Walker said. The board’s comparison of pilot fees in other ports was not enough to base a fee increase because it did not take into account the size of ships and how many were coming to each port, Walker ruled.

“While not entirely irrelevant, fees charged by other ports are not, standing alone, conclusive as to whether the fee in Portland is just and reasonable,” Walker wrote.

In an interview Monday, Board Chairman Tom Dobbins said the ruling was disappointing.

“We thought we had done what the court wanted originally,” Dobbins said.

The board is scheduled to meet with its attorney in executive session Tuesday.

“We thought we had a good case,” he said. “We will look at it and decide how we are going to handle it from there.”

Since the November rate increase has been vacated, the legal minimum fee is the one set in 2016, Dobbins said. The Pilots have not requested a rate increase this year, he said.

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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