It has been nearly a year since DCP Midstream submitted its application to the town of Searsport to build a liquid propane gas terminal and 14-story-high storage tank. In that time, the Waldo County town has become a battlefield of resistance, with Maine residents from far and near attempting to persuade and berate the last line of defense: the volunteer planning board. Board Chairman J. Bruce Probert said recently the process is heavily straining the town: “I don’t want it to split the community apart.”
We echo his sentiment: The permitting process is not worth a miniwar. Searsport is a small town of 2,800 people. It would be unfortunate for everyone involved to let the project erode human courtesy. It’s OK to oppose the tank and put up signs in objection and speak out at meetings and through letters to the board. But the opposition did not help its cause recently when people let their anger overtake them and disrespected the planning board members by yelling at them, calling them names and alleging they are biased.
The board listened to 11 nights of public hearings — more than any project in recent memory — and the last hearing, on Feb. 25, ended raucously. Some people yelled that the board was owned by DCP. They complained that they hadn’t had a chance to speak — even when they still had time to submit written testimony. They said the board was not representing them. But the board is representing them; it cannot give preferential treatment one way or another. It must follow the permitting framework approved by residents and it will undertake all deliberations in public view.
Likely starting March 27, the board will review DCP’s application and determine whether it meets the standards set out in four ordinances: the site plan review ordinance, land use ordinance, shoreland zoning ordinance and floodplain ordinance. Will the project not have an “unreasonable adverse effect” on municipal services such as roads and fire and police departments, as required under the site plan review ordinance? One of the purposes of the land use ordinance is to ensure Searsport residents can enjoy their property “without undue disturbance from abutting or neighboring uses.” Would the tank constitute an “undue disturbance”?
Deliberations on questions such as these will be broadcast live on TV, and people may sit quietly in the audience. Residents will know what statements board members make and how each person votes. In the end, the members will vote whether they believe the project meets each standard set out in the ordinances. If it doesn’t meet one standard, the board will deny the application. If it meets all the standards, it will be authorized, but the board may attach conditions of approval. Either way, having a democratic government requires the board to stick to the process, and that’s what it’s doing.
The pressure is intense. The tank would be one of the largest of its kind in the country. It has drawn national press. Board members sometimes have received dozens of letters per day from people in opposition; and area towns have aired their concerns. Former Gov. John Baldacci weighed in. DCP already has received all other necessary permits. Now it comes down to regular people making a reasonable determination within the approval system they have been given. Either way, their decision likely will be appealed. We can only urge the board to consider the project with as much objectivity and thoroughness as possible, within the constraints of town guidelines and the law. If anything, residents should be grateful they’re not in the planning board members’ shoes.