FOREST CITY, Maine — While the name might imply a metropolis, Forest City, population 5, is not a hub of activity.
The rural community at the border of Washington and Aroostook counties and the province of New Brunswick has no convenience stores, shopping centers or schools, and there are many more trees than people.
So Jane Johnson, a Forest City resident for 30 years, was shocked earlier this month to hear of a proposal by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to demolish and replace the current land port of entry in Forest City with a new, larger and more expensive facility.
Residents in the community are voicing concern over the proposal, as the project directly affects her more than 3 acres of property.
The agency is considering a plan to construct a modernized, larger port of entry featuring enhanced technology and updated infrastructure. Officials with the agency said earlier this week that the proposed facility, which includes plans for a four-lane road to cross from the U.S. into Canada, would help prevent illegal activity and for better traffic control.
The upgrades are sought to improve CBP’s capacity to facilitate growing trade and travel while preventing illegal activity and the entry of terrorists, terrorist weapons and contraband, according to CBP officials.
Agency officials stressed earlier this week that the project is no more than a proposal, and nothing has yet been solidified. A project to enhance the Forest City port would be paid for with American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funds. Officials from CBP would not comment on the cost of the project this week, but Kevin Kelley, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, said this week that CBP told the senator the estimated cost of the project is $8 million.
Johnson and other full-time and seasonal residents have sought assistance from Collins, who is a ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
The Forest City border crossing, considered a “low-volume port of entry” because it is open less than 24 hours a day, is down the street from Johnson’s home. If the project were conducted as proposed, Johnson’s land would be filled in to accommodate the structure and a parking lot.
Johnson said Friday that she met Thursday morning with representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers and CBP. The Army Corps has begun requesting access to residents’ properties for the purpose of conducting pre-construction surveys. Johnson was the only resident present at the meeting.
“The meeting was just for me because they want my land,” Johnson said. “I think that the Army Corps of Engineers and Customs and Border Protection came away from the meeting with an understanding of the area and why this great big port won’t fit in this community. They took pictures and talked with me at length. I am very hopeful that they will work on the existing footprint of the building.
“They can’t accomplish what they want to do without my property,” she continued. “They want my land, and there is no way I will sell it. I enjoy the peace and quiet, and my gardens. I support their mission and I want the Customs and Border Protection officers to have what they need, but I think they can accomplish it without my property.”
Johnson said she believes the government could take her land through the process of eminent domain, in which the government acquires private land for public use and compensates the owner.
Representatives from CBP would not comment on that matter.
During the summer, the population of Forest City swells to 25 or 30 people.
After Collins was contacted by the Forest City residents, she sent a letter to Thomas Winkowski, assistant commissioner of CBP, outlining the concerns of the Forest City constituents and stating her concern over “the unwise use of taxpayer dollars that would result from making major and unnecessary changes to the Forest City” port of entry.
In a letter to Winkowski, Collins cited statistics pointing out that fewer than five vehicles cross through the port each day, along with “extremely minimal truck traffic.”
Johnson doubted that the port sees even that much traffic.
“Sometimes you see only two cars go through there a day, and other times there are no vehicles coming through here at all,” she said. “We are talking about a port that is only open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is closed on Sundays and holidays. Most of the time the residents are the only people to use the port.”
Collins has suggested to Winkowski that the allocation for Forest City should be redirected to other northern border ports “that have higher traffic volumes and more extensive infrastructure needs.”
Rafael Lemaitre, a CBP spokesman, said Wednesday that the port is more than 40 years old and has “dilapidated infrastructure and outdated technology.”
He said the current port has inadequate traffic control infrastructure, including only one primary inspection lane with no inspection booth, no pedestrian lane and no noncommercial secondary inspection area.
Those issues would be addressed if the port were modernized.
“Modernizing the Forest City port will address a critical national security need and will benefit small business,” said Lemaitre. “The Forest City modernization will be conducted by a qualified design-build contractor with a small business subcontracting plan that upholds the economic goals of the Recovery Act.”
The Forest City port has not undergone any major renovations since it was built in 1964, according to Lemaitre.
“Customs and Border Protection considers landowners to be partners in the port modernization strategy, and if this project moves forward will work with them to find solutions that balance security with the needs of the local community,” said Lemaitre. “Modernizing the Forest City port will address an important national security need. By making critical upgrades to the port, we will meet essential post-9-11 security and operational standards while fulfilling the economic goals of the Recovery Act.”
Johnson said she and other residents are not opposed to CBP improving the structure, as long as they stay on their existing property.
“No one wants a big government presence here,” she said. “This isn’t that kind of a place. People live here because it is away from things and there is peace and quiet here. If they do this big project, it would destroy our quality of life and just be government waste at its worst.”
Johnson also said she has faith in Collins. The senator met Friday afternoon with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
“I talked personally with Secretary Napolitano and I expressed the concerns of people who live in Forest City,” Collins said in a written statement Friday.
“During our conversation, Secretary Napolitano assured me that DHS would take another look and review the original plan to demolish and replace the Land Port of Entry in Forest City.”
Johnson expects to hear back from CBP in a few weeks.