October 16, 2021

Sears Island decision a missed opportunity for Maine

On Tuesday, Nov. 18, the Joint Committee on Transportation of the Maine Legislature made a deeply flawed decision concerning the future of Sears Island. Unless corrected by future action, their vote on the recommendations presented to the committee by the Sears Island Joint Use Planning Committee continues indefinitely the 40-year stalemate concerning the island’s opportunities for both economic development and conservation.

The transportation committee accepted every recommendation of the JUPC, but added a contingency that poisons the potential of real progress for many years, perhaps indefinitely. The JUPC’s key recommendation is to dedicate 330 acres of the island for potential use as a marine port and 601 acres for outdoor recreation, environmental education and ecological protection. These recommendations were developed through an intensive, 3-year planning process by more than 50 different representatives of transportation, industry, conservation, outdoor recreation, local business, state agencies and town governments. This complete spectrum of interests achieved a consensus to reach beyond gridlock and produce the first comprehensive resolution of this long-contested issue.

The poison pill that the transportation committee inserted into its decision is the contingency that before the conservation land can be established, a port proposed for the island must receive all permits. This decision was neither fair to the people of Maine nor prudent for the future of the island, as demonstrated by these facts:

The 330 acres for potential port use was delineated by DOT staff and is more than three times the area required for development of a container port.

Finding a private entity to fund and partner with the state to develop a port, design facilities, conduct studies, and proceed through regulatory review will take an unknown number years.

During the past 40 years, six major developments, including one port, have been proposed for Sears Island. Not one has ever received the permits necessary for completion.

Any permitting process for a port on the island must consider alternative sites. Improvement and-or expansion of the existing port at Mack Point might be sufficient to serve the need, further delaying satisfaction of the committee’s contingency for a permit for an island port.

A 2006 economic analysis of the conservation program as proposed for Sears Island determined that the conservation land – including a small visitor, education and maintenance center, multiuse trails and related public access facilities – would attract a projected 23,000 visitors each year who would inject $1.7 million into the economy of the region annually.

Why not commit the 601 acres to conservation now, and allow at least that portion of the island to become a performing asset for the people of Maine? Extensive research by the JUPC determined that this will not conflict with future proposals to use the 330 acres for a port.

In the meantime, the island continues to drain resources from the town of Searsport. It receives no tax revenue from the island due to state ownership, but has to provide police patrols, emergency response, trash removal and other services. Further, because there is no management of the current public use except for concrete barriers and a gate across the entrance road, ecological values of the island are being degraded.

The stalemate perpetuated by the transportation committee’s narrow decision should be corrected through action by the full Legislature, in recognition that the people of Maine have a broad set of interests in Sears Island. The balance of uses proposed by all parties through the JUPC’s recommendations encompass this breadth. The transportation committee’s decision does not.

It is time for the entire Legislature to consider the future of Sears Island, the value of the recently thwarted JUPC’s proposed compromise, and vote to take responsibility for stewardship of this important state asset.

James Gillway is Searsport’s town manager; Dianne Smith is co-chairwoman of the Joint Use Planning Committee; Scott Dickerson is executive director of Coastal Mountains Land Trust. All three served on the committee that crafted the compromise plan.

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