AUGUSTA, Maine — A legislative panel has taken a dim view of a compromise proposal designed to split Sears Island into separate conservation and port-development zones.
Although the Department of Transportation expected the Joint Standing Committee on Transportation to ratify the plan during a special session Wednesday, members decided to table the proposal until they had time to weigh its ramifications further. The committee agreed to take up the matter at another special session next month.
Under the proposal, 330 acres of the 931-acre island off Searsport would be set aside for the development of a cargo port and the remaining 601 acres would be placed in a conservation easement under the control of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust. The conservation portion of the island would be protected from development.
Although the details have been ironed out among various parties, the actual report describing the proposal will not be ready until the end of the month. Not having the report in hand prompted the committee to table the matter.
DOT Commissioner David Cole told the committee that the “conceptual framework” had been worked out over the past year after a series of meetings with residents of Searsport and environmental and port development supporters. He said the state had pushed to develop a port on the island for decades because of its proximity to deep water and the existing port at Mack Point. Under the proposal, the developer would be permitted to install roads and railroad lines to the port.
Cole estimated the cost of building a port on the island at $200 million and said it would require private investment to pull that off. A study commissioned two years ago indicated the port project could create 2,200 jobs along with a major capital investment. He acknowledged that developers were following the process.
“Until we finalize this I don’t see private parties coming forward and putting up money,” Cole said.
The thought of major port development being constrained by the conservation easement raised a red flag for some committee members. Rep. George W. Hogan, D-Old Orchard Beach, said he was fundamentally opposed to the DOT even considering “giving away something like this.”
Hogan wondered where the department would be if a few years after the agreement was approved, environmentalists wanted to expand their share of the island.
“We own the island,” Hogan said. “It just seems we should have more jurisdiction over the island.”
Rep. Charles D. Fisher, D-Brewer, said that while it made him “feel good that two diverse interests” could agree to occupy the island together, he worried that “One endangered species you haven’t talked about today is the working man in Maine who can’t make a living.” Another was “the Maine businesses that can’t make a living.” Fisher described the island as an “economic development engine for the coastal area. I hope we don’t lose it.”
Christine Savage, R-Union, said she was “very uneasy” about leaving the state vulnerable to a situation in which, should port development ever become a reality, environmental forces would try to block it.
Environmental groups have long opposed any development on Sears Island.
“I want to know what our protection is,” Savage said.
Cole noted that under the agreement any change of ownership or use would have to be approved by the committee. He also noted that any port project would have to withstand the scrutiny of a number of federal and state agencies before a permit could be granted.
Committee Chairman Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, reminded the committee that the 15-member Sears Island Working Group that formed the compromise included environmental groups. He said that under the terms of the easement the environmental groups agreed to port development. That being the case, he added, there were probably no assurances that every group would stand aside and watch the island be developed.
“Certainly in their heart of hearts I would expect they oppose development,” Damon said. “Still,” he added, “if ever there was potential for a win-win, it is before us with this proposal.”
Ron Huber of Penobscot Bay Watch, one of the groups opposed to any development on the island, said after the session that he supported the decision to table the matter. Huber said the DOT should wait until a port developer comes forward and goes through the permitting process before carving up the island.
‘This is a great victory, as far as we are concerned,” said Huber. “The skepticism and doubt that the committee has shown supports our position. The committee is very suspicious that the Sierra Club and Friends of Sears Island and others will go back on their word, and that’s the message we have been trying to get to the committee.”