May 28, 2018
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Sears Island plan challenged in court

By Walter Griffin

ROCKLAND, Maine — Claiming a religious attachment to Sears Island, an environmental activist has taken legal action against the Department of Transportation over its plan to divide the island into separate port and conservation zones.

Ronald Huber of the group Penobscot Bay Watch filed the petition for review of the plan in Knox County Superior Court last week.

The complaint charges that DOT and Legislature’s Transportation Committee violated state law and the state constitution when planning and approving the partitioning of Sears Island into the separate zones.

Under the partition, 330 acres of the island were set aside for port development and the remaining 601 for conservation. The transportation committee approved the plan last month.

Huber contends that the law that gave the transportation committee oversight of the management of the 931-acre island off Searsport on upper Penobscot Bay was unconstitutional.

An attempt to reach the DOT for a comment on Huber’s petition was unsuccessful.

Huber said that under the constitution, the executive branch has sole authority over management of state-owned property. He said that Public Law Chapter 277 “An Act Regarding the Management and Use of Sears Island” violates the section of the constitution dealing with distribution of powers.

“The law improperly grants executive branch decision-making power to the Maine Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation,” Huber said Wednesday. “I just can’t in good conscience sit back and let the constitution be trampled on.”

Huber also petitioned the court to find that the DOT failed to comply with the requirements of the Maine Sensible Transportation Policy Act and the Maine Site Location of Development Law by moving forward on port planning.

“These two state laws have hugely important environmental impact review standards,” he said. “Maine uses them to protect her places of natural biological productivity, her irreplaceable scenery, historic and archeological sites from the long-term effects of large scale developments like a container port.”

A similar petition for review was filed Thursday in Waldo County Superior Court by Searsport resident Harland Ivan McLaughlin of the group Fair Play for Sears Island. In it, McLaughlin also contended that the partition agreement was unconstitutional and that the DOT failed to comply with the sensible transportation act as well as the site location law. McLaughlin did not claim having a religious bond with the island but noted he has been an “avid user and protector” of the island since 1947.

Huber has long been a staunch opponent of any development of Sears Island. His group was among a number of environmental groups that were successful in blocking construction of a cargo port on the island in the 1990s.

Huber said he has had a “religious and spiritual relationship” with Sears Island and its surrounding estuarine complex from the moment he got involved with the issue.

Huber’s petition states that he often hikes the island and swims its shallows in communion with its natural residents. He stated that he was charged by God in 1992 with stewarding and restoring the island’s ecology, “particularly the brackish water nurseries and diadromous fish shelter habitats” surrounding it, nearby Long Cove and the harbors of Searsport and Stockton Springs. He said the eel grass around the island provides a critical environment for juvenile Atlantic salmon and other species.

“This is a place that Almighty God has created to nourish, shelter and transition the salmon that morph there, freshwater to saltwater, salt to fresh, back and forth between Penobscot River and Penobscot Bay, that have done so for at least 8,000 years and will continue to do so, if I can help it,” he said. “Not to mention the river herring, the sturgeon and the other fishes and water-dependent wildlife that use these sheltered waters.”

The petition calls for the court to “protect the irreplaceable Wasumkeag Estuarine Complex” from port development. Huber asked the court to order that the state’s conservation easement to Maine Coast Heritage Trust be rescinded until a careful look is taken at the environmental implications a port could have on the air and water quality of upper Penobscot Bay and lower Penobscot River.

“Let’s have the judge throw everything out and we can start over again,” he said.


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