AUGUSTA, Maine — After praising the work of the Joint Use Planning Committee to come up with a proposal for the use of Sears Island that balanced industrial and environmental concerns, the Legislature’s Transportation Committee on Tuesday delayed signing off on the agreement.
The committee voted unanimously to accept the negotiated conservation easement but to leave it unsigned temporarily.
Instead, the committee chose to request a bill in the next Legislature instructing the Maine Department of Transportation to pursue the permitting of a cargo port on Sears Island.
Under the proposal presented Tuesday, 330 acres of the 931-acre island in upper Penobscot Bay off Searsport would be set aside for development of a cargo port, and the remaining 601 acres would be placed in a conservation easement under control of Maine Coast Heritage Trust. The conservation portion of the island would be protected from development.
Tuesday’s vote means that for the time being, there will be no action on the proposal.
State Sen. Christine Savage, R-Union, said she appreciated the efforts of those who worked on the proposal, but added, “There are still some who are unwilling for a port to be built on this island.” She moved that “the compromise agreement be accepted in principle until a port is permitted on this property.”
Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, then offered specific proposals for the legislation to define land use options to protect the cargo port.
After the drafting and passage of the law, and the approval and signing of the permits, then the conservation easement would be signed.
Savage said it was not her intent to change the agreement. “My intention is to protect the cargo port,” she said.
But JUPC members who helped carve out the agreement viewed the committee’s action as a setback.
“I feel it set us back 20 years,” said JUPC facilitator Dianne Smith of Searsport after the committee’s vote.
“This process is going to take so long, and meanwhile there will be no access, and the island will continue to be trashed,” she said, referring to testimony that the island was being littered from lack of management.
After the committee’s vote, DOT Commissioner David Cole in an interview pointed out that the controversies surrounding Sears Island have gone on for 40 years with different proposals for the island.
“This has been a long, hard effort on the part of many in the conservation community and transportation interests,” he said. “At this point the discussions will go on, and there will be public hearings on the new bill to be proposed.”
He said he was sorry to see the matter delayed, adding that he would like to have seen the plan signed and that he hoped everyone involved with the Joint Use Planning Committee would see the issue through to its resolution.
Cole has been a regular participant at monthly meetings of the 15-member JUPC for the past year and a half.
JUPC member Becky Bartovics said the Transportation Committee’s vote “just wasted five years of the efforts of many who worked on the project.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, JUPC member James Gillway, who is Searsport’s town manager, presented the local view of the issue, while member Scott Dickerson, executive director of Coastal Mountains Land Trust, reviewed the effort from the conservation point of view, and member Robert C. Grindrod, president of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, gave the transportation side’s perspective.
A 23-year resident and former police chief of Searsport, Gillway said the town has been patiently awaiting a decision on the future of Sears Island for decades.
Dickerson said he had participated in the process for many years and seen a “broad array of people working together” on the uses for the island.
Grindrod told the committee that “generally, the port interests find this agreement acceptable.”
Tuesday’s meeting was a follow-up to an Oct. 15 session of the Transportation Committee meeting for the purpose of ratifying the plan. Committee members, however, tabled a vote on the proposal until they had time to weigh its ramifications.