SEARSPORT, Maine — From the Sears Island Causeway, the five yellow and red weather balloons that floated peacefully over the treeline on Mack Point Thursday morning had a cheerful, almost festive air.
But the people who prowled around the region armed with cameras and binoculars didn’t all think that the brightly colored balloons — designed to show just how high a proposed liquid propane gas storage tank would be if approved — were innocuous.
“The balloon test — I find it a little bit benign,” Victoria Miller of Searsport said before leaving the causeway. “You don’t see the impact. You don’t see the clearcutting. You don’t see what it’s really going to look like.”
The Searsport Planning Board had asked Denver-based DCP Midstream to do the balloon test as part of their review of the controversial $40 million project’s application. The terminal and storage tank would be constructed at the Mack Point industrial zone, but according to the balloons, they will be located much closer to Angler’s Restaurant on Route 1 in Searsport than to the existing tank farm there.
The red, central balloon, which marked the highest point of the proposed 137-foot-tall structure, seemed to loom out of the woods just behind the popular seafood eatery, with the four yellow balloons denoting the height of the tank’s sides hovering around it.
If the project is built as proposed, the company will clear-cut some acres in the woods for the tank and also for a safety berm around the tank. The firm will need to leave a buffer of trees between the facility and the shoreline at Long Cove in order to meet Searsport’s ordinance, according to Searsport Code Enforcement Officer Randy Hall, who also was scoping out the balloons.
The project already has received approval by entities that include the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Coast Guard. It now awaits approval only from the town of Searsport. The planning board is reviewing the 700-page application.
“I am not opposed to progress, as long as it’s done the right way,” Hall, who will not be asked to approve the project, said. “If they approve it, it’s my responsibility to make sure it’s done properly. That’s why I’m here today.”
Searsport Selectman Dick Desmarais also was on the causeway. He said that because the balloons appeared to be visible from few parts of town, he initially thought they had been placed too low by the balloon testing company.
“I’m pleasantly surprised to see that it’s as low as it appears to be,” he said. “It’s been overhyped.”
In fact, a private contractor doing the test for DCP Midstream said Thursday morning that the top of the tank would be at the level of the bottom of the balloon. He was driving around Searsport, taking photographs of the balloons for the company and the planning board to use.
One location where the balloons appeared almost startlingly close was off Old Route 1, a road on the western side of Route 1 that climbs into the hills.
The balloons looked large behind Lorraine Brooks as she worked in her tidy front lawn on Porter Street.
“My husband and I are fine with it,” she said. “It’s not bothering us. I grew up here — we always had the tank farm. We’re not upset or concerned. Actually, I’m glad there’s some business wanting to come to Searsport.”
Those opposed to the project have cited safety concerns, negative impact on tourism and worries about increased traffic on Route 1 from additional propane tanker trucks coming and going from the facility.
Many people checking out the balloons Thursday reiterated those concerns.
“We will see these huge, wide things, plus the other buildings, and the flare,” said one Stockton Springs woman standing near the Irving gas station on Route 1 who did not share her name. “But we’re concerned not only about the way it looks, but about the safety, the hazard, the trucks going down this road. The potential for an accident also worries us.”