SEARSPORT, Maine — The door is now open for major changes to the community’s skyline, after voters decided at Saturday’s annual town meeting to allow much higher structures in the Mack Point industrial zone.
The secret-ballot vote, cast in the early afternoon at the Searsport High School cafeteria, was 79 in favor to 66 against amending the land use ordinance there to allow structures as tall as 150 feet. Fuel tanks already at the terminal measure about 50 feet tall, well below the existing 60-foot height limit.
Officials from Denver-based propane company DCP Mainstream have told town officials and residents they would like to construct a 137-foot-tall fuel storage tank at the point.
Townspeople spoke both for and against the ordinance amendment during sometimes emotional testimony before they cast their ballots.
“The possibility of this coming in and affecting my town and my family’s business is scary to me,” said Amy Nickerson, a manager at Angler’s Restaurant on Route 1. “I’m for business in Searsport. But the chance that it’s going to hinder or hurt our business — this is my children’s college fund. I want to carry that on.”
DCP Midstream has an option on a parcel of land at the northern part of Mack Point, east of the restaurant, and Nickerson has expressed her concerns at prior public meetings that the location would be problematic for the 10-year-old fish eatery.
Her remarks were met by applause from some of the roughly 150 people sitting in the folding chairs and the wooden bleachers in the room. But the next speaker, Almon “Bud” Rivers, also received ringing endorsement from the crowd.
“We need industry in this town,” he said. “This town has turned industry away.”
It was a point repeated by others who spoke, including A.J. Coach.
“There are a lot of you who have apparently lost sight of the fact that the port and the bay have built this town,” he said.
Those who spoke against the ordinance change mentioned concerns about the possibility of a fuel explosion, worries about possible environmental degradation, the possibility of much more truck noise, damage to tourism and a general disapproval of encouraging the country’s dependence on foreign fuel.
“I think one of the most important features we have in our area is the environment,” said Cameron Watson. “I think we’ll lose dollars in tourism. I think we’ll lose other things.”
Tom Gocze had a warning for his fellow residents.
“We’re talking about something that can blow up on Route 1,” he said of the proposed fuel tank.
Although some called for the town to table the question and consider it further, Town Manager James Gillway said that in order to make a change to the land use ordinance, residents must vote on it at the annual town meeting, meaning a postponed vote would not occur for another year.
One of the last people to speak again elicited applause.
“People get up and talk about how they don’t want ‘it,’” Roy Dakin said. “I’ve seen kids leave this town because there’s nothing here. I think we really need to vote this in. We are a cargo port. We’ve been a cargo port for 150 years. You’ve got to think about the taxes in this town — it’s killing us. Most of us. We need industry.”
Then residents lined up to cast their ballots, and ate fish chowder and home-baked treats in the corridor while town staff counted them, watched over by Police Chief Richard LaHaye.
Gillway said during the meeting that the town has not yet had an actual proposal from DCP Midstream, but if one is received it will have to go through the usual approval channels.
In other business, residents voted to amend the subdivision and cemetery ordinances in order to bring them into state and industry standards, decided to dispose of a 5-acre parcel on the Old County Road, and then voted to give it to Habitat for Humanity for the purpose of building a home there.
They also voted to raise and appropriate a total of $2.128 million to keep the town’s business ticking along for another year, showing their yellow ballots over and over again to show their approval or disapproval of the proposed budgets for such disparate areas as the police department, town administration, Carver Memorial Library, the transfer station and holiday decorations.
Additionally, residents voted to raise and appropriate a total of $29,361 for a variety of nonprofit organizations that requested financial support from the town.
Mostly, the amounts were in line with the sums recommended by the Board of Selectmen and the budget advisory committee.
However, those groups had recommended giving nothing to the Sexual Assault Crisis & Support Center, which had requested $925 but never sent anyone to explain their agency’s mission at a meeting in Searsport.
Joy Baker said she disagreed with the town.
“I think if you read the paper every week, that is not an adequate explanation,” she said.
A resident moved to amend the article to have the town give the full amount to the agency, which easily passed.