BELFAST, Maine — A Maine Superior Court justice has dismissed three environmental lawsuits about Sears Island which argued that if the Maine Department of Transportation develops 300 acres on the wooded island it would “irrevocably harm” the plaintiffs’ rights to enjoy, use and even worship in the area.
Three separate civil lawsuits against the department, which originated in Waldo, Knox and Kennebec counties, were consolidated and dealt with together on Sept. 8 at Waldo County Superior Court by Justice Jeffrey Hjelm.
“The plaintiffs’ allegations do not suggest that they have sustained an actual injury,” Hjelm wrote in his dismissal. “The controversy between the plaintiffs and the defendant is therefore not yet a ‘real’ one.”
The lawsuits stemmed from a January 2009 decision by the Legislature’s Transportation Committee to approve an executive order from Gov. John Baldacci that divided Sears Island into two parts — 330 acres for a new port and 601 acres to be protected from development with a conservation easement.
The proposal has received mixed reviews from environmentalists who have fought for years to preserve the island and from those who argue that a port will create much-needed jobs while benefiting the regional economy.
In February 2009, Ron Huber, Harlan McLaughlin and Douglas Watts filed their lawsuits in an effort to force the DOT to conduct a “full and public analysis to determine if a port at Sears Island is even necessary,” according to a Bangor Daily News OpEd piece they wrote in May 2009.
“Is it worth the harm to Penobscot Bay’s fisheries, air quality and to a unique part of Maine’s scenic beauty?” the men asked.
In his lawsuit, Huber also said that he has been an “avid user and protector of natural resources and wild residents of Sears Island” since 1992, and that “Almighty God” charged him with stewarding and restoring the island’s habitat.
His suit claimed that his “freedom to worship and carry out the will of Almighty God is protected under Article 1 Section 3 of the Maine Constitution; it will be irrevocably harmed if the final agency action is not invalidated and rescinded.” That part of the state’s constitution states, in part, that “all individuals have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences.”
Stephen Miller of the Islesboro Islands Trust, who was on the steering committee to determine the future of the island, said Wednesday that Hjelm’s ruling seemed like an “exoneration” of the work that had been done.
“The ruling supports the tremendous effort that many people made in a very difficult consensus-building process,” he said in a phone interview, describing the three lawsuits as “almost frivolous.”
“The court, I think, supported common sense,” Miller said.
Huber said in a press release that he was disappointed but not surprised by the verdict.
“[Justice] Hjelm postponed decision on the case for nearly two years, waiting to see if Maine DOT might find a prospective port applicant,” he wrote. “The state never did. This left the judge with no recourse but to dismiss the case for lack of a tangible development project that might injure the island and the plaintiffs.”
But Miller said that the dismissal stemmed from other causes.
“It shows our government process does work,” he said.