The town of Bar Harbor can continue to limit the number of cruise ship passengers allowed to come ashore there on a single day, a federal judge ruled Thursday.

Bar Harbor voters passed a referendum in 2022 barring more than 1,000 cruise ship passengers a day from disembarking in town over concerns about tourists impacting the quality of life for residents. But a group of local business owners sued the town, arguing the visitation cap rendered the town “an unviable destination port-of-call” that was unconstitutional and would hurt the local economy.

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

U.S. District Judge Lance Walker ruled that Bar Harbor had home rule authority granted by the state, which allows cities and towns to pass and enforce local rules that don’t violate state law or the U.S. Constitution.

“Congestion in downtown Bar Harbor is a seasonal fact of life, but it is empirically exacerbated by the regular morning and afternoon pulse of cruise ship passengers and the tour buses and other vehicles that arrive to cater to them,” Walker wrote in his ruling. “The 1,000-person limitation is a significant downshift from the passenger caps previously observed in Bar Harbor. But that downshift also promotes noneconomic interests.”

Bar Harbor, one of the state’s biggest cruise ports, had for years marketed itself as a premiere tourist destination for cruise ships. It has long been a tourism destination in Maine, nestled next to Acadia National Park, which saw 3.87 million visitors in 2023. Some 272,000 passengers visited Bar Harbor in 2022, according to court filings.

Some residents have long been concerned, however, about cruise ship passengers flooding the town and causing congestion, overwhelming town infrastructure, and detracting from the town’s character. A 2021 survey conducted by Pan Atlantic Research for the town found 55% of Bar Harbor residents believed cruise ships had a negative impact on the town.

The town opposed the citizen-led referendum in 2022, concerned about the potential for a lengthy legal battle, the difficulty of enforcing the law at privately owned docks, and whether the town has the bandwidth to take action if the limit is violated. Town committees urged the town’s 5,500 residents to reject the measure, but it passed in a 1,780-1,273 vote.

A cohort of local business owners running retail shops, hotels, restaurants and tour-related businesses argued in court that the measure was protectionist and discriminatory, a greater burden than benefit to the town, and that it violates state and federal laws around foreign commerce and economic development.

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.