Nov 29, 2008

Jilted Port Huggers Lament Oversight 'Poison Pill'

Several of the creators of the foundered JUPC plan for partitioning Sears Island fired back at their critics and at the Maine legislature    today with a co-signed op-ed in the weekend Bangor Daily News
Do the trio admit to having made mistakes? Of course not. Do they fault their decision to exempt their Plan from impact review under the federal highway administration's own environmental law, even though it was appropriate?  Not a bit. Do they renounce their bizarre decision to acquiesce with MDOT's demands they sacrifice hundreds more acres of the island's forests and streams than would logically be needed for a port? Nope.
From the 30 acres the state previously found an acceptable acreage for a port, did they  give up without a whimper 270 acres more of the island's forested, stream cut western shore.Ayuh.- and by definition the thousand acres of nursery shoals  in front of those 300 acres that would have to be dredged and filled? Suppose so. They never thought about that
Do they regret bypassing environmental review of their giant vague plan purely for the sake of shortening the process?  Not a bit. Like mindless robots, they were "charged by the governor" to ignore the environmental consequences  of their plan for the upper bay's brackish estuary, which a port would sit in the amidst of.  
But the rest of us know better . Stand tall, Legislature
Strip MDOT from Sears Island's title and deed. Place it under the state's Public Reserved Land status, with attendant payment-in-lieu-of-taxes to Searsport. Not under the privatizing thrall of  overgrown,  privately-held Maine Coast Heritage Trust and its hangers-on. Should a port become a necessity, the need so great it justifies biting a chunk out of the island and fish nursery shoal, why, public reserved land is legally open to such compromises. But a port isn't a necessity. as the three essayists note.  Not for the foreseeable future.  Read their essay (below or  the online version,) and weep.
They just don't get it.

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.

Written by James Gillway, Dianne Smith and Scott Dickerson

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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