On March 10, Searsport residents will vote on a moratorium that could have negative effects far beyond the industrial port district located at Mack Point.
Supporters of the moratorium claim that it will only last two months, but a review of the document shows otherwise. Section 5-D creates the opportunity for numerous extensions, public hearings and votes at future town meetings. Contrary to the claim that such a process will be objective, 33 percent of the ordinance review committee members would be hand-picked from a group whose stated goal is to stop a proposed $50 million investment in the port, rather than simply looking to have some questions answered.
This moratorium is about much more than one project, however; it is about future control of the port. Many of the same individuals and groups now fighting development on Mack Point were instrumental in negotiating the much-heralded Sears Island Agreement which promoted industrial development on Mack Point instead of Sears Island.
When it meant keeping industry off the island, no one voiced any concerns about increased truck traffic, volatile cargoes, cutting trees or impacts to the view shed that new development at Mack Point could potentially bring. Now that a proposed project is poised to use much of the remaining available land at Mack Point, it would appear that port opponents have a new strategy: keep industry off Sears Island by saying there is ample space remaining on Mack Point, then oppose new development on Mack Point to ensure that space always remains “available” there, rather than developing Sears Island.
As just one of many individuals who depend upon the port for their livelihood, I am acutely concerned about our region’s future should this moratorium pass.
Consider the struggling Millinocket area, where private investors have spent tens of millions of dollars to revitalize the forest-products industry, largely by diversifying into the manufacture of high-quality wood pellets. These pellets are in great demand in Europe, and the most cost-effective way to move them is by rail to a port facility, where they are normally stored in tall silos built specifically for that purpose, before being loaded into ships.
Searsport is the closest rail-connected port to Millinocket. The other rail-connected option for shipping this product is the Canadian port of St. John, N.B. Should the Searsport moratorium pass, it would send a clear signal to these investors about which community may be more likely to support new development and growth in maritime commerce, and which one may not.
In 2005, Maine enacted “working waterfront” legislation, seeking to protect Maine’s fishing industry from the pressure and friction spurred by residential real estate development. Sadly, no such program exists to preserve Maine’s “industrial” waterfront, which occupies far less than the 20 miles of fisheries related waterfront cited in this legislation.
Maine’s industrial waterfront comprises less than 0.25 percent of the state’s 5,300 mile coastline, yet port opponents claim that growth of industrial development on such a small percentage of our coast will irreparably harm the environment and the tourism industry.
However, as ship traffic into the port of Searsport has steadily increased, so has tourism into the midcoast region. Acadia National Park visitors spent $186 million in 2010, and many of those visitors came via Route 1 in Searsport, and they will continue to do so despite additional growth at Mack Point.
Similarly, the increasing number of ships calling in Searsport has had no adverse effect on the growth of the yachting industry, or the sustainability of the lobster industry. In 1996, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association understood that ship traffic was increasing, and it supported the creation of a recommended route for deep draft vessels on Penobscot Bay, a model for vessel-routing now in place from Maine to New York.
Last year set the record for Maine lobster landings, a large percentage coming from the valuable and productive Penobscot Bay fishery.
Port opponents persist in making unsubstantiated claims that industrial development is detrimental to tourism, fishing, recreational boating and the real estate industry, but the recent history of Penobscot Bay and the port of Searsport demonstrates otherwise. Residents can support tourism and maintain the town’s historic role as a center of maritime commerce by voting no on the anti-port moratorium.
Captain David Gelinas is a harbor pilot on Penobscot Bay and is president of the Searsport/Bucksport Chapter of the Propeller Club of the United States. The club is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the goal of educating legislators and the public as to the importance and necessity of waterborne commerce.