Searsport debates aesthetics of taller tanks

Posted Jan. 25, 2011, at 9:28 p.m.

SEARSPORT, Maine — Is it a good idea to change the building ordinances in Searsport to allow structures to soar more than twice as high as they do now in the town’s waterfront industrial zone?

That was the question residents discussed at Monday night’s public hearing on the proposed change, which was sparked in part by a Colorado company’s stated desire to build a 137-foot-tall propane tank at the Mack Point Marine Intermodal Cargo Terminal. The tank would be big enough to hold 26 million gallons of fuel.

The town has a 60-foot height restriction in place there, with current fuel tanks measuring approximately 50 feet tall.

About 30 people attended the hearing at Union Hall, engaging in a spirited but friendly conversation about different visions for Searsport. The speakers’ viewpoints varied, though many expressed concerns about the possibility of having such a large structure in their town.

Bruce Probert, chairman of the planning board, tried to keep discussion centered on heights and not on other issues raised by the potential of having the propane tank constructed at Mack Point — but it wasn’t a simple task.

“I’m wary about becoming the town with the tank,” said Astrig Tanguay, a co-owner of the waterfront Searsport Shores campground.

She said she has done some research that shows that, if constructed, Denver-based natural gas company DCP Midstream’s tank would stand tall among the existing structures of Maine.

Tanguay said the tank would be taller than both the 133-foot Boon Island Light in York, the tallest lighthouse in New England, and the 135-foot distance from the water to the deck of the Penobscot Narrows Bridge between Verona and Prospect.

“I think that labels us an industrial place,” Tanguay said. “I’m really concerned about the size and the way it will affect us.”

The proposed ordinance change will be on the warrant for the March annual town meeting, Probert told the assembled residents.

If the proposal passes, the maximum heights in the industrial district would be changed to 60 feet for buildings used primarily to shelter people, 150 feet for principal structures other than buildings and 175 feet for accessory structures, such as cranes, silos and towers.

Tom Gozce, who said he would be a close neighbor to the proposed tank, spoke at length during the hearing.

“The tank is going to be right there on Route 1,” he said. “That’s going to become the defining characteristic of this town.”

Gozce said that the potential for loss of property value is no small matter, either, and showed the room a photograph of a 10-million-gallon water tank in Woburn, Mass., that he described as dwarfing the neighborhood.

“Is it worth making the change? I’m not sure it is,” he said. “What do we find acceptable in our town?”

Resident Brenda Birgfeld had a different take on the tank.

“I’d like to live in a pristine place,” she said. “But soon the older people won’t be able to … Our taxes keep going up and up and up.”

She said that the town needs jobs to keep its young people employed in Maine more than it needs to keep dreaming of becoming a major tourist destination.

“It’s never going to happen,” she said. “We’re a little town.”

Steven Tanguay of Searsport Shores said that constructing such a large tank wouldn’t offer anything to young people.

“Young people want to work where it’s a nice place to live, where you can do things,” he said.

Resident Christine Cuneo-Lareau encouraged compromise and suggested that perhaps the natural gas company could construct a tank that wasn’t as tall but wider.

“I think we have a unique advantage. We have a wonderful port. We have a wonderful campground,” she said. “The company needs to be more creative with the size of their buildings.”

David Graham, a DCP Midstream official, also came to the meeting, saying after it was over that the company continues to be interested in Searsport. Although the company has a preliminary tank design, it is “by no means” completed, he said.

“This ordinance is one item that needs to fall in place to have the project go,” he said. “If the maximum height’s 60 feet, there’s no sense in us applying.”

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