April 24, 2018
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High court upholds dismissal of lawsuits over Sears Island

A causeway bends to the right, connecting the mainland to 941-acre Sears Island in Searsport on Penobscot Bay.
By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff

BELFAST, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has upheld a lower court’s dismissal of three environmental lawsuits about Sears Island.

In a one-page ruling called a memorandum of decision, the justices unanimously agreed with Superior Court Justice Jeffrey Hjelm that the lawsuits were filed prematurely because no one has been damaged since the Maine Department of Transportation has not found anyone to operate a port on the island.

“The plaintiffs’ allegations do not suggest that they have sustained an actual injury,” Hjelm wrote in his dismissal last year. “The controversy between the plaintiffs and the defendant is therefore not yet a ‘real’ one.”

The state supreme court did not explain why it agreed with Hjelm’s decision in its one-page ruling issued May 3. Justices also did not hear oral arguments but considered the appeal solely on briefs.

Three separate civil lawsuits against the DOT, which originated in Waldo, Knox and Kennebec counties, were consolidated and dealt with together in September by Hjelm in Waldo County Superior Court.

The lawsuits stemmed from a January 2009 decision by the Legislature’s Transportation Committee to approve an executive order from then-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 next month, 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 previously published reports. The plaintiffs argued that if the DOT developed 300 acres on the wooded island it would “irrevocably harm” the plaintiffs’ rights to enjoy, use and even worship in the area.

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.

If the state were to find someone to operate the port, the plaintiffs could file a new lawsuit outlining alleged harms and seeking damages.

BDN writer Abby Curtis contributed to this report.

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