SEARSPORT, Maine — On Wednesday, the town’s planning board resumes the lengthy, laborious process of reviewing the controversial bid by DCP Midstream to build a 23 million gallon liquid propane tank near the Mack Point port.
Soon — perhaps within a few weeks — the board will vote to approve or deny the application. With either decision, volunteer board members are bound to disappoint and even anger many of their neighbors.
And even then, the final act likely will come much later, as both DCP Midstream and opponents are expected to challenge the board’s decision in court if it doesn’t go their way.
Kristin Collins, the attorney who represents the planning board in the process, said the board expects to close the public hearing and begin deliberating on the application next month.
Public comment will continue to be accepted at the 6 p.m. Wednesday meeting, picking up after the public hearing was recessed last month. It will be held at Searsport District High School. Subsequent sessions of the public hearing are planned for 6 p.m. Thursday and Friday.
When the general public and the several people and groups that have been granted interested party status have had their say, and DCP Midstream’s representatives have concluded their explanation of the proposal, the board then will focus on the black-and-white of the ordinances.
Collins said the town’s land use ordinance and its site plan review ordinance are the documents board members will use to reach their conclusions. In particular, she said the site plan review ordinance’s definition of “unreasonable adverse impact” will be key.
Weighing “unreasonable adverse impact” will mean balancing risks and benefits, she said — the new jobs and expanded property tax base versus a potential hit to property values and safety concerns.
The site plan review ordinance defines unreasonable adverse effect as “any unreasonable risk to man, the environment, existing municipal services, property values, natural resources and historic areas, taking into account the economic, social and environmental costs and benefits with the project.”
Wholesale bulk fuel distribution facilities are allowed uses in the industrial district, according to the land use ordinance, so the board likely will begin with the assumption that the propane tank is a permitted use.
The section of the land use ordinance that explains the document’s purpose notes it exists “to assure the comfort, convenience, safety, health and welfare of the present and future inhabitants …” The ordinance also lists under purpose “preservation of the town character,” “protection of the environment” and “reduction of traffic conditions,” all issues that have been debated related to the proposal.
Each of these might be factors supporting denial of the application.
But in the same “purpose” section is this goal: “to promote the development of an economically sound and stable community.”
DCP Midstream has said it plans to hire a dozen permanent workers with an annual pay of $70,000 and its $40 million investment will expand the property tax base.
Collins confirmed that the board will make findings of fact as it begins to review the application. If the board finds that the tank is a permitted use in the industrial district, it then will consider whether the project “will result in unsafe or unhealthful conditions.”
Opponents have made much of the fact that the tank, and the tanker ships that will travel up Penobscot Bay to fill it, could become targets for terrorists. They also have argued that an explosion or fire at the tank could be catastrophic, possibly killing hundreds and burning much of the town.
Under the industrial performance standards section, the ordinance asserts that “no material which is dangerous due to explosion, extreme fire hazard … shall be used, stored … except in accordance with applicable state and federal codes and regulations.”
DCP Midstream has secured state and federal permits for the project.
DCP Midstream and its supporters have countered the danger claims arguing that the company has a good safety record and that the Mack Point tank farm has been storing volatile fuels for decades without problems.
After the board votes on the project, opponents or the applicant may challenge the planning board’s review before the town’s board of appeals, adding yet another battlefield to the struggle between DCP Midstream and local opponents.