A consensus on the future of state-owned Sears Island in Penobscot Bay, which took years to achieve, is poised for acceptance by the Legislature’s Transportation Committee. The compromise vision for the island, which protects 600 of its 940 acres while also creating a zone for a possible container port, is a good deal for Searsport, the region and Maine.
The sooner the compromise plan is included in state law, the better. Not only will it lay to rest decades of conflict, but the plan also will create a degree of certainty. That certainty is needed for investment in tourism and recreation related to the conserved part of the island, and for investment in upgrading marine transportation infrastructure on the other.
Of course, not everyone involved in the years-long process that led to the compromise deal is happy. There are conservationists who remain committed to preserving the entire 940-acre island and believe the environmentalists who signed onto the deal have compromised their values. And on the other side, there are those who want to see the entire island set aside for transportation uses. They argue that Sears Island was purchased for transportation concerns, and they worry that a port operation could be limited in size and scope by the acres set aside for hiking, bird-watching and the like.
It took great courage on the part of conservationists and port development advocates who stuck with the planning process to set aside what appeared to be irreconcilable differences to create the compromise vision. After the broad outline for dividing the island was achieved, the agreement could have unraveled over the last year as the committee worked to actually draw lines on a map delineating between port and preservation. But it didn’t. The group of important stakeholders continued the hard work of finding common ground, and the result is a plan for Sears Island that does not ride roughshod over environmentalists’ concerns while also recognizing the high value of protected deepwater access the island offers.
Members of the Transportation Committee should be wary of last-minute attempts to scuttle the deal based on sour grapes from those who abandoned the process.
Once the last hurdle is cleared and the plan becomes part of state law, the Department of Transportation will be empowered to seek a private developer to build a container port on the northwest corner of the island. But before a port can be permitted, DOT must show that it has maximized development at the port facilities on nearby Mack Point on the mainland. Access to the preserved portion of the island then will be improved with the construction of an education center and some low-impact trails. The owners of the sea captain homes that are now bed-and-breakfast inns in Searsport can then include the natural wonders of the island in their marketing.
The compromise plan is a step toward the branding of Maine as a tourist destination identified in the 2006 Brookings Institution report, and it also creates potential for more energy-efficient transportation by sea, which addresses global warming concerns. The end of the Sears Island logjam cannot come soon enough.