Searsport residents wary of proposed 150-foot oil tank

Posted Jan. 21, 2011, at 11:50 p.m.

SEARSPORT, Maine — When representatives from Denver-based natural gas company DCP Midstream discussed their proposed marine propane terminal with residents and town officials last month, they also explained that they had identified a major problem.

The community’s current 60-foot height restriction in the Mack Point industrial zone would mean that the company couldn’t build a 150-foot-tall propane storage tank there big enough to hold 26 million gallons of fuel. A tank of that size is more than three times as large as the existing fuel storage tanks already at the point.

Searsport residents are being asked for their input on an ordinance change that would fix that problem at a public hearing Monday night. But the question “How big is too big?” is making one industrial zone neighbor see red.

“The idea of coming up the coast of Maine and having a tank this big in your face is a significant issue,” Tom Gocze, who lives close to the proposed project, said Friday afternoon. “It’s a steppingstone to transforming the area in a negative way.”

Twenty-six million gallons of fuel is roughly equivalent to the volume of water inside 40 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

But planning board chairman Bruce Probert cautioned against reading too much into the ordinance change. DCP Midstream has yet to make a formal, written application for the project, he said.

“I don’t look at it as a big deal,” he said. “It’s all a procedure. You follow the procedure. My heart doesn’t quicken at all until I see something in writing.”

Residents will vote on the proposed comprehensive plan ordinance change at the annual town meeting in March. If it passes, it would mean that the definition of buildings would be altered. A principal structure would be defined as a building where people could live, and the maximum height of such an edifice would remain 60 feet tall. But a structure used solely for the storage of goods and property, including a bulk fuel distribution facility, would have a maximum height of 150 feet.

Additionally, accessory structures such as cranes or silos could stretch as high as 175 feet. Right now, they are limited to 125 feet.

A tank that is 150 feet high “obviously” would change the view space of Searsport, Probert said, and would be hard to hide.

“We don’t have trees that grow that high in Maine,” he said.

The public hearing on the proposed ordinance change will take place at 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 24, upstairs in Union Hall in Searsport.

Probert wants to see the amendment passed.

“Not for DCP, but for other things in the industrial zone,” he said. “We don’t want to restrict ourselves with the zoning ordinance. That means we wouldn’t be competitive.”

Mack Point, located across from Sears Island, already is a fuel depot, with tankers that deliver gasoline, diesel, heavy fuel, ethanol and coal there. The area is zoned for a broad variety of uses, including ship building, windmills, radio stations, lumberyards, pulp mills, beauty parlors and banks, Probert said.

Last month, DCP Midstream official Jeff Hurteau said the company was “very serious” about constructing a marine propane terminal at Mack Point. If built, the terminal likely would receive four to seven propane tankers per year and would support between 15 and 20 full-time jobs, he said.

Gocze, who until recently wrote a column on energy issues for the BDN, said he is concerned with both the size and the safety of the proposed propane tank. To him, there are not many differences between liquefied natural gas — which has been controversial in different parts of Maine, including Searsport — and liquid propane.

“We’ve changed the N to a P. It’s still liquefied fuel,” he said. “I don’t want to be that NIMBY [not in my back yard] person saying I don’t want commercial growth. But prior to this tank, it’s been very controlled. We’ve got stuff coming and going, and it’s all good. This is kind of like going crazy.”

A tank that is 150 feet high, or 15 stories, would be visible from Route 1, he said.

Anglers owner Bud Hall, whose popular Route 1 restaurant abuts the industrial zone, said his concerns are more about the details of the ordinance change than the fuel tank.

Hall said he is worried the town will change the height requirements of structures but not the setback requirements. A 175-foot crane that collapses would be a danger to its neighbors, he said.

“I guess I just want to see consistency throughout the land ordinance,” Hall said. “But after speaking with some members of the planning board — that they would take safety into account — well, I have a lot of faith in the planning board. I trust in their judgment.”

The public hearing on the proposed ordinance change will take place at 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 24, upstairs in Union Hall in Searsport.

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