ELLSWORTH, Maine — This time, there should be no need for publishing apologies in newspapers, according to officials.
Motorists in Hancock County, especially those who regularly commute between Ellsworth and Mount Desert Island, could be forgiven for any apprehension they may feel given what happened the last time a large tree was painstakingly transported by flatbed truck from Atlantic Landscape Construction on Route 1A in northern Ellsworth to Northeast Harbor.
In that incident, morning traffic came to a standstill on Route 3, and scores of people trying to get to their jobs were several hours late for work while other motorists simply gave up and turned around. It took crews about 10 hours to move the 20-foot tall apple tree, which also had a 30-foot width that took up both lanes.
A few days later, Charles Butt, a billionaire Texas-based supermarket owner who had that tree transported to his summer estate on MDI, apologized for the snafu in several ads he placed in area newspapers.
But this time around, it won’t be just one tree. It will be 16 of them — one per day, starting on Tuesday and ending sometime about Feb. 1, depending on weather or other issues that may affect progress. Trees will not be transported on Saturdays or Sundays.
“I do have concerns about the inconvenience it could cause,” Jim Willis, who is serving as police chief for Bar Harbor and Mount Desert, said Monday. He added that he has discussed the situation with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, which will provide an escort for the trucks transporting the trees.
“We’re going to have to monitor it,” Willis said. “Last time, it caused a lot of problems.”
The special permit that the transport company has received from the Maine Department of Transportation requires a law enforcement escort for the vehicles carrying the large loads. In 2003, it was members of the Maine State Police who escorted the apple tree that caused the gridlock between Ellsworth and MDI.
According to information posted on the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department Facebook page, an escorted truck will leave Atlantic Landscape Construction each morning at 6 a.m. and will travel south on Route 1A into Ellsworth, then onto Route 3 through Trenton to MDI, and then onto routes 102 and 198 as it travels through Town Hill and Somesville to Northeast Harbor. The distance from start to finish is 27 miles and, under normal traffic conditions, would take about 45 minutes to an hour to cover.
“The escorts will be limited to one escort/one tree per day,” department officials wrote in the Facebook post. “Recognizing the potential for inconvenience, we have taken the steps necessary to ensure these escorts will not cause an undue hardship during the morning commute.”
The department will keep the public informed with daily reminders and notices about postponements or reschedulings that may result from the weather, according to the Facebook post.
According to the Maine Department of Transportation, during weekdays in January 2014, there was a daily average of about 9,200 vehicle trips across the causeway (for both directions) that connects MDI to the mainland.
Lt. Tim Cote of the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department is overseeing the police escort effort. He said Monday that an engineer has mapped out where the trees can be moved to the side of the road in order to let traffic pass. The first transport on Tuesday will serve as a trial run.
“If everything goes well, we’ll continue the way we’re doing it,” Cote said.
He added that, unlike the 2003 effort, there will be no utility companies involved. One reason the tree transport 12 years ago went so slowly is that utility companies had to raise wires suspended across the road as the tree passed underneath. Cote said that won’t be an issue this time around.
“I’ve been told every one of those trees is under that [overhead wire] height,” Cote said. “There won’t be any utilities [affected].”
Scott Kane, the new sheriff of Hancock County, said Monday that officials will be responsive to traffic problems that may occur.
“Obviously, if the first trip or two doesn’t go well, we’ll reassess it,” Kane said. “There’s got to be some sort of balance.”
Officials with R.F. Jordan & Sons, the company moving the trees, declined to comment on Monday. Attempts Monday to contact Atlantic Landscape officials for comment were unsuccessful.
According to Maine Department of Transportation spokesman Ted Talbot, the department permit that has authorized the transport of the trees to MDI specifies only that they are being delivered to Sargeant Drive, a road in Northeast Harbor that fronts on Somes Sound and where many valuable seasonal houses are located. No specific address is listed on the permit, Talbot said.
Butt, who had the transported tree in 2003, has his seasonal home on Manchester Road, which also overlooks Somes Sound.
Mount Desert Code Enforcement Officer Kimberly Keene said Monday that she had just heard about the planned tree deliveries to Sargeant Drive and that she did not have any direct knowledge about where they are being delivered.
But, she added, there is only one property on Sargeant Drive that has a valid permit for excavating or filling in soil, which is required for anyone who might be planting large trees in the shoreland zone. That permit, she said, has been issued for 8 Sargeant Drive. According to the town’s online assessing database, that property is owned by Nancy G. Harris.
It was unclear Monday if the possible planting of trees at Harris’ property might be related to a construction project on an abutting property at 14 Sargeant Drive. That neighboring property is where billionaire Steven M. Rales is building an 18,000 square-foot waterfront mansion at a projected cost of $9.4 million.