By any measure, Penobscot Bay pilot David Gelinas has a hard job. In all weather and conditions, he travels miles out to sea to clamber aboard vessels in order to steer them and their cargos safely into port.
But harder even than his work has been what he does in his spare time: advocating for the future of the port of Searsport and for the state’s working waterfront.
He has spent years trying to push back against what he sees as intensifying “not in my backyard” opposition to any project or infrastructure upgrade proposed for Penobscot Bay. That includes even the ones he believes will make his job easier and safer to do, such as the Searsport Harbor dredging project, which was halted in 2015 amid fierce resistance.
“The deepening part of the project was important to us. We were looking at it as enhancement of the safety of what we’re doing on a daily basis,” Gelinas said. “It’s a shame to me that people who have a concern about something don’t seek out knowledgeable answers. Really, what’s been happening for the last 10, 15 years isn’t an effort to understand things. It’s been an effort to kill things.”
Proponents of developments along Maine’s coast — most notably a proposed land-based salmon farm in Belfast — suggest that a culture of development phobia has settled in, creating the sense that coastal communities are “anti-business.”
In midcoast Maine, there is a strong tradition of locals pushing back and sometimes beating outside development efforts, with one notable example the time in the 1960s that Belfast residents fought the state and avoided having U.S. Route 1 routed directly through the city’s downtown.
Residents who have stepped forward to oppose specific projects disagree with the assessment they are anti-business. They assert that their opposition derives from a commitment to preserve quality of life and a “sense of place” endangered by businesses that arrived amid fanfare, then departed to the net detriment of the community. Poultry processing and, more recently, the MBNA bank card company, are two examples they cite.
“It’s hugely shortsighted and hugely frustrating,” Gelinas said. “You address one concern, and in its place another one comes up. It’s always the same cycle.”
‘Fear and noise’
People who have stepped in to oppose proposed midcoast development during Gelinas’ lifetime include environmental activists, those who mistrust corporate promises, those who doubt the ability of state and federal regulatory agencies to ensure that corporations don’t sacrifice public good for profit and those — it must be said — who just don’t want their backyards to be altered.
Ron Huber of Friends of Penobscot Bay has been fighting on behalf of the bay he loves for more than 25 years. He thinks that NIMBYism can lead to good results, at least in terms of delaying or halting development.
“To me, it’s to slow this stuff down. To make it smaller. A little less destructive,” he said. “I think it’s one of the wonderful things of Maine, that there are people willing to be activists. I don’t think we need to fear it. I’d say it’s doing just what it needs to get done. If it causes heartbreak among developers, well, too bad.”
But other Mainers believe that a small segment of the population is slowing Maine’s economic growth and affecting people who live far away from those ‘backyards,’ wherever they might be located.
Social media is helping to amplify the “not in my backyard” voices, said Peter DelGreco, president and CEO of Maine & Co., who believes that what’s happening in the midcoast is a reflection of the increased anger and political polarization nationally.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily getting worse. It’s definitely getting noisier,” he said of NIMBYism. “Right now, we seem to be in an environment where fear motivates people more than hope does.”
Maine & Co. strives to help companies establish successful operations in Maine, and one of their clients is Nordic Aquafarms, Inc., the Norwegian company that wants to build one of the world’s largest land-based salmon farms along the Little River in Belfast. The intensity of the opposition came as a surprise to DelGreco, who said that people around the world are paying attention to what happens in Belfast.
“Companies absolutely want to go where they’re welcome. They’re not looking for places where they’ll be seen to be adversarial,” he said. “There have been concerns about Belfast, from an international view. I think they’re waiting to see. OK, there’s noise — but is it going to affect the company’s ability to receive permission to go forward?”
He hopes not, saying that Maine needs economic growth, and is “uniquely” situated to attract it, as long as the anti-development voices are not too loud.
“I don’t want to live in a world ruled by fear and noise,” he said. “I do want to make sure that we don’t have too many influences coming in, especially from outside the state, that view Maine almost like a museum.”
Searsport or Saint John?
Gelinas echoed some of these concerns, saying that in the past 20 years, he has watched as proposals to dredge the channel, to build a large liquid propane gas storage tank and terminal at Mack Point in Searsport and to bring any development at all to Sears Island have come to nothing.
This trend, he believes, is a problem.
“From a business standpoint, it further compounds the reputation that Maine has of being an anti-business state,” he said. “The reputation of the port of Searsport now is where plans go to die. … Nothing’s happening. None of it. That absolutely gets noticed in the industry. If a company is looking to expand and bring maritime employment to the region, what happens? Where will a company be more welcome? The port of Searsport or the port of Saint John, New Brunswick? Saint John, absolutely, hands down. And most people just don’t care. As long as it’s not in my backyard, they say, let those jobs go to Canada.”
Huber, the longtime activist, said that he sees some port development proposals as better than others and that opposition can make projects better. And if it seems that opposition voices are louder lately, it shows how much people love the bay in their backyard, he said.
“The activists here have a pretty powerful record of blocking things,” he said. “I think it’s good. It gets people thinking about the bay and what matters. On one level, people wave signs and demonstrate. On another, people look for the scientific or regulatory issues at stake.”
Gelinas, though, believes that opponents sometimes use scare tactics to rally less engaged neighbors to oppose projects.
“Whenever projects come along, they seem to be political,” he said. “It just seems to me that the broad bipartisan support isn’t there to the extent it used to be.”
All of this, he said, is frustrating. Worse is that he’s not sure how the two sides can find common ground.
When he attends informational meetings and they seem to be viewed solely as an opportunity for opponents to yell at or deride experts, it’s a problem, he said. As an example, he cites a meeting about the harbor dredging that was held in Belfast several years ago by the Army Corps of Engineers. A scientist came, answered question after question, showed videos, graphs and explained the science.
“After 30, 40 minutes of that, a fisherman said, ‘I guess you have all the answers, don’t you?’ The scientist just couldn’t do anything right. No matter what he said, the idea in that room was preconceived. ‘We don’t like it,’” Gelinas said. “I don’t mind anybody questioning safety, or environmental impact. Proposals need to go through a rigorous review. But it seems to me what’s happening is that the legal system and the public review system are being used as a tool to cudgel a project to death.”