DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — The doors were closed 45 minutes before the Piscataquis County commissioners meeting even started Tuesday morning because the room was already packed for Cianbro Chairman and CEO Peter Vigue’s presentation on the proposed east-west highway project.
More than 50 people gathered outside the meeting at the Peaks House next to the Piscataquis County Courthouse, many holding signs protesting the project.
“Everyone was respectful in terms of listening to Mr. Vigue, as he was very respectful to the concerns of the audience,” said Thomas Lizotte, chairman of the board of commissioners. “He went way above and beyond in what most people would’ve thought in terms of answering every single question that was posed, and there must’ve been four dozen of them.”
Only 30 people were allowed inside the meeting because of safety concerns, said Lizotte. The superior courtroom was considered as a location for the meeting, as it had a slightly larger seating capacity, but “state court security officials didn’t think it was a good idea,” said Lizotte.
The primary concern of the crowd was: Where is the road going?
“Obviously, it’s impossible to say with total certainty exactly where it is,” said Lizotte. “[Vigue] did say today that it would be between Dover-Foxcroft and Dexter. I think that is a major sigh of relief for a lot of people because there were all kinds of maps floating around that showed where the road might go.”
The highway would link New Brunswick to Quebec by way of a 220-mile toll route that would, under the tentative current plan, run from near Eastport west to connect to the road network near the Canadian city of Sherbrooke, which already connects to Montreal and Ottawa.
Vigue said he has deliberately not disclosed the exact route of the highway, but he indicated it would be well south of Maine’s working forests.
“We’re very hesitant of saying where it’s specifically going to go,” he said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “Outside groups have moved into this state to intimidate landowners and communicate things to them that aren’t true. I’m not about to put that information in front of the world to clearly define where it’s going to go.”
Vigue said he has already talked with a number of landowners, and some of them, he said, asked not to have that information out there.
The other major concern from citizens was the issue of eminent domain.
“Mr. Vigue said over and over again that this is a private project. They won’t have eminent domain rights,” said Lizotte. “They’re not ripping anyone from their home. They’re going to work with property owners to make sure there’s willing sellers. They don’t want to put that route where it’s not welcome. They’ll try to identify routes that will have as little environmental impacts as possible.”
Vigue said his biggest reason for being at the meeting was to dispel rumors about the highway.
“I have no interest in destroying people’s lives or inflicting damage on Maine communities,” he said. “The way we’ve treated people in this state speaks for itself.”
Vigue added that there would be no gas pipeline along the highway and no toxic waste would be transported on it.
The highway would be an opportunity for businesses, said Vigue.
“There’s a lot of small companies and businesses that have left this state because of [a lack of] connectivity,” said Vigue.
Commissioner Eric Ward said he was impressed with how straightforward Vigue’s answers were to the questions asked.
“There were [questions] anywhere from what route would be taken to eminent domain, tolls, you name it,” said Ward.
Ward added that Vigue said the 2,000-foot right-of-way would actually be reduced to 500 feet for territory west of Penobscot County. Two exits off the highway would be in Piscataquis County.
A state feasibility study should be completed by the end of the year, said Ward.
Lizotte said he has been skeptical that the project would ever be built given that talk of such a highway has been going on for decades.
“I’ve lived in Maine since 1970 and I’ve been hearing about the east-west highway now for 40 years,” said Lizotte. “This seems like the best opportunity.”
Outside of the meeting, many held signs in protest of the highway, but their reasons varied.
“I think it would be a disruption of the rural quality of life for thousands, especially those within sight or earshot of the highway,” said Paul Docken of Wellington.
“I live in the woods off the grid, and have for 35 years,” said Lisa Laser of Dover-Foxcroft. “If this road comes through, then the reason I live in the woods goes away.”
Laser also took issue with jobs being a reason for the highway.
“If it’s about jobs, and Mr. Vigue has been talking about this corridor for five years now, where is the training for the jobs?” Laser said. “There aren’t enough people in Maine to do these jobs right now. These jobs will be imported.”
Belgrade’s Chris Buchanan of Defending Water for Life was concerned about the environmental effect of the highway.
“If it was built, it would open up areas of Maine that are currently very difficult to get to for companies like Nestle to mine for water and sell it on the global market,” said Buchanan. “The east-west corridor, environmentally, would open up a lot of Maine to that sort of resource extraction that currently doesn’t happen.”
Others who stood outside in the light rain were just looking for answers.
“I just want to know whether it’s good for Maine. We don’t know. We want information,” said Kathy Johnson of Monson.
Supporters and detractors of the project will have another opportunity to hear from Vigue and Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, on the project.
A public meeting will be held at Foxcroft Academy in Dover-Foxcroft from 6 to 9:30 p.m. Thursday, May 31. Buchanan said there will be a public rally before the meeting at 5 p.m.
BDN writer Nick Sambides Jr. contributed to this report.