AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. John Baldacci has asked the Transportation Committee to approve an executive order that would divide Sears Island into areas suitable for both port development and conservation.
The governor’s order was presented to the committee on Tuesday. It asked members to support implementation of the findings of the Sears Island Joint Use Planning Committee that set aside one-third of the 931-acre island for a cargo port and the other two-thirds for preservation. A vote on the executive order was tabled until Thursday.
The committee accepted the joint use proposal two months ago but decided to delay its implementation until the Department of Transportation had permits necessary for port development in hand, a process that could take years. The governor wants to move on the matter immediately.
Committee chairman Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, apologized to the committee for springing the matter on them without warning. The committee has some new members as the 124th Legislature was sworn in recently and some were unaware that Damon had been meeting with the governor on the issue.
“I apologize for not being able to get it to you before this,” Damon said of the order.
Damon told members that Baldacci wanted to move on Sears Island because there has been some outside interest about building a cargo port there and that he strongly believes that a port would add to the state’s economic growth.
If approved, the executive order would instruct the DOT to “actively and aggressively work with the Maine Port Authority to market and develop a cargo and container port on Mack Point and Sears Island.” Mack Point is the existing port opposite Sears Island on the Searsport mainland.
Under the order, the DOT would retain 330 acres for port development, including land for a truck and railroad corridor running from the island causeway to the port site. 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 future development.
DOT commissioner David Cole said that while there had been some “unsolicited interest” about developing a port on the island, the department had not been marketing the island.
“It made no sense to go forward,” Cole told the committee. “Until you remove the cloud of controversy, we cannot market this island.”
Over the past four decades the island had been targeted, at one point or another, as an ideal site for a nuclear power plant, coal-fired power plant, oil refinery, aluminum smelter, liquid natural gas facility and cargo port. All met with strong opposition from environmentalists. Although a number of environmental groups have signed on to the joint use plan, there are others that remain adamant that the island be protected from all development.
Rep. William P. Browne, R-Vassalboro, described the island as “important for Maine commerce” and questioned whether the very groups that have agreed to support the joint plan would fight the state “tooth and nail” to block the port once they have the conservation easement in hand.
“That’s a big leap of faith and I don’t think I’m going to take it,” Browne said.
Similar sentiments were expressed by Rep. Douglas A. Thomas, R-Ripley. Thomas said he had “no intention” to sign away the state’s rights to the island and described the agreement as the “latest attempt” to block development there.
“Why would I sign a deal that is a death sentence for Sears Island,” Thomas said.
Searsport resident and joint committee member said that while the town initially was divided on the matter, it has accepted the proposal. She said a port would provide jobs and tax revenue while the conservation easement would protect the majority of the island.
“If you want this port, this is the time to make the decision,” Smith advised.