Two accounts of yesterday's meeting in Searsport...
Tanya's Mitchell's account of the meeting Here
Peter Taber on yesterday's meeting on Sears Island.
Sears Island Update
By Peter Taber
“Today’s the critical day,” Deputy Conservation Commissioner Karin Tilberg predicted Tuesday in Searsport at the start of what many had long hoped would be the end of a now seven-month-long citizen planning initiative, its claimed goal to achieve a consensus recommendation to Gov. John Baldacci to decide the fate of Sears Island. “It’s going to happen today or it’s not going to happen,” she said.
Five hours of generally unproductive talk later, it clearly wasn’t going to happen. But as the new year rolls around, the approximately 40 “stakeholder” participants were assured, there will be more talk, lots of talk. Starting in January, there will be meetings both large and small. Those attending will mostly be from the ranks of the two now-dominant positions that have emerged from half a dozen lengthy open meetings since May, from an unknown number of smaller technically public but unannounced meetings, from a blizzard of email and telephone traffic among the participants.
One group is a familiar one that includes transportation industry representatives and officials of the Department of Transportation (DOT) who are straightforward in their desire for major port development on the west side of the island. According to a large map of the island prepared by the DOT’s Rob Elder on display in the meeting house behind the Searsport Congregational Church where Tuesday’s gathering was held, this would close off for port development some 300 acres of what at present is an entirely wild 941-acre island, the largest such public island property on the East Coast.
The other major group of initiative stakeholders are those ostensibly in the preservation camp, most of whom until recently argued for maintaining the entirety of the island in its natural state. Considering the stormy political history of the island, focus of the longest-running environmental battle in New England history, many of these stakeholders now appear prepared to make some truly astonishing concessions to the first group, their primary caveat being that they, too, should be allowed to embark on physical development of their own on the island in the form of some sort of “education center.”
Indeed, responding to a draft consensus proposal primarily authored by Jonathan Reitman, the Brunswick attorney serving as facilitator for the state-sponsored process, on Tuesday elements of this group made public a compromise version that would give the DOT the green light to start “marketing” perhaps 141 acres of the island for a cargo container port. Reitman had suggested about 241 acres with possibly about another 50 acres serving as “a flex easement.” The compromise version was prepared by Steve Miller, director of the Islesboro Islands Trust, who along with Scott Dickerson, his counterpart at Coastal Mountains Land Trust, has led the drive for non-industrial development of the island. It was unclear whether all the others present calling themselves environmentalists were endorsing this version. Most of these stakeholders spent a considerable portion of the early afternoon closeted away in a private planning session of their own closed to the press. What was clear, after they finally emerged for the open public session, the only criticism heard of the Miller proposal came from the mainline port proponents, who didn’t feel it went far enough to suit them.
The environmentalists included two representatives of the Maine chapter of the Sierra Club. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Sierra Club footed much of the bill for a succession of legal maneuvers that stymied port developers and forced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to enforce provisions of the U.S. Clean Water Act. This activity brought attention to the enormous environmental damage that would be caused by a container port with a marginal wharf on the west shore of Sears Island, the very sort of project now being reconsidered. It also led to criminal investigation of some of those involved in the major preparatory work that did take place for the project, something that only failed to result in prosecution because the statute of limitations ran out. Further, it led to Normandeau Associates, which conducted some of the planning studies on behalf of the DOT for the project, having its privilege to bid for federal contracts suspended. The Sierra Club’s activities also resulted in the state agreeing to an $800,000 settlement to avoid prosecution for illegal filling of wetlands at the proposed port site. And, most significantly, it was this legal effort that ultimately forced Gov. Angus King to conclude in 1996 that the cost of mitigating for environmental damage made continuing with the port project an economically unsound idea.
Tuesday’s meeting opened with Tilberg seeking to clear the air in the wake of a Bangor Daily News article last Friday whose banner headline announced “Sears Island group reaches consensus on port.” “This is a very delicate time,” she cautioned as she went on to strongly deny suspicion her department was anything but transparent in its dealings, that it certainly would never attempt “to plant articles.” The story with its misleading headline was widely circulated by other news media including Maine Public Radio. Reporter Tom Groening said he “cringed” when he read the headline and blamed “some 25-year-old copyeditor” for the error.