A Dec. 1 public meeting scheduled to be held in Searsport has been canceled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the request of the Maine Department of Transportation because of a legislative committee vote on Nov. 18.
The DOT has withdrawn its prospectus for an “umbrella mitigation bank” related to a specific project site at Sears Island.
Mitigation banking is a procedure that instructs agencies to restore or enhance wetlands where possible and “bank” that acreage against future development on other wetland. Mitigation banking is integral to the Sears Island joint-use plan because it creates a system of debits and credits on the land.
The Legislature’s Transportation Committee decided on Nov. 18 to tie the implementation of the Joint Use Planning Committee’s final report and execution of its conservation easement with the successful permitting of a cargo port on the island, thereby effectively delaying the easement until next year.
“Maine DOT has withdrawn the banking prospectus given the Nov. 18 actions of the Legislative Transportation Committee,” said Deane C. Van Dusen, manager of Field Services & Mitigation Division for Maine DOT.
“We will most likely resubmit sometime in the near future once we get clear authorization from the committee and [DOT] Commissioner [David] Cole,” he added.
That means two bills on the same topic likely are destined for next year’s Legislature.
The committee voted to request a bill for January’s session that would direct the DOT to seek a port developer and secure a permit for a cargo port on 331 acres of the island.
Gov. John Baldacci will ask for a bill that would allow the recommendations in the joint committee’s final report to be implemented and would include the language to enable the conservation easement.
Meanwhile, the uncertainty of the Joint Use Planning Committee’s final report will affect the proposal for mitigation banking of wetlands on the island.
According to the prospectus, the Maine DOT proposed that 601 acres of the island become the foundation for a federal umbrella mitigation bank for transportation, using a conservation easement.
Critics say mitigation banking could facilitate destruction of wetlands, which have value and provide wildlife protection and water quality purification, not only on and around the island but anywhere in the state where transportation projects result in damage to sensitive ecological areas.
“Under mitigation banking, wetlands can be created for other wetlands someplace else that have been harmed, so that you don’t have any lag time,” said Kyla Bennett, an environmental lawyer with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
“For instance, if you want to build a road, you have to fill a wetland and create another one outside of the path of the road to mitigate for the harm you’ve created in filling that one wetland,” she said.
The problem with a statewide mitigation bank, like the one being proposed by Maine DOT, is that most of the time, the created wetland is not going to be anywhere near where the harm is.
“If a wetland is being formed outside of Portland, and being mitigated for on Sears Island, what good does that do for the people in Portland?” she asked rhetorically.