Sep 16, 2009

Media: Sears Island takes center stage, at Alamo

Not bad!  though I wish she'd mentioned my main point when she wrote: "it might impact Penobscot Bay." to summarize my depiction of the awesome marine fertility of the island's shoals area and how it is being needlessly threatened for a port for which, Commissioner Cole in so many words admitted, there is no need, only an opportunity.  But I think  that opportunity would be on the backs of nature and the nature based economies of Penobscot Bay. - RH


Capital Weekly. Augusta Maine

Sears Island takes center stage, at Alamo
By Tanya Mitchell   (Mitchell attended the S914/09 event)

Sep 16, 2009
Bucksport — What better place to hold a forum about the future of an island that has been at the heart of decades-long arguments about how best to use it?

Than at The Alamo.

Voices on various sides of the Sears Island debate were broadcast live over WERU FM airwaves Sept. 14 throughout the two-hour forum.

While the discussion initially attracted a light crowd — with about a third of the theater seats occupied at the start — the audience steadily grew as the show progressed.

The forum was billed as a discussion about the future of the island, which is divided into two portions through a joint-use plan and conservation easement signed last spring by Gov. John E. Baldacci.

About 601 acres of the 941-acre island is preserved in perpetuity by way of a conservation easement held and managed through Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

The joint-use plan also allows for the remaining 340 acres to be set aside for potential development of a container port.

Throughout the joint-use planning process, which spanned about five years, those seeking to keep the entire island in its natural state have been at odds with those who support port development on the island.

The division between the two sides was apparent Monday night as panelists discussed — and in some cases, defended — their positions.

Panelists were Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Hancock, Fair Play for Sears Island member Peter Taber of Searsport, former Sears Island Joint Use Planning Committee member Jimmy Freeman of Verona Island, Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner David Cole and Ron Huber, executive director of Penobscot Bay Watch.

WERU volunteer Gray Parrot moderated.

Damon, who chairs the Legislature's Transportation and Marine Resources Committees, questioned Taber about his characterization of the planning process.

During Taber's opening statements, he referred to a series of public meetings held prior to the formation of the JUPC, when the public largely supported keeping the island undeveloped.

Taber described the process as dishonest, and called out the Maine Sierra Club for changing its position on keeping the island development-free in exchange for a planned education center that he called "eco-world."

Damon called Taber's statements as inflammatory rhetoric, and questioned why Taber chose to see things as he does, even with the potential for conservation and recreational opportunities on the majority of the island.

Taber said Damon need look no further than the planning process, which he said was conceived because MDOT "had bungled this sort of thing in the past."

Taber recalled when the planning process, under the Sears Island Planning Initiative Steering Committee, established so-called affinity groups where those on differing sides could draft visions for the future of the island.

"Those groups were quickly distilled into those who wanted a port and those who agreed that a port might be OK," he said.

Taber, a former newspaper reporter for the now-defunct Waldo Independent, said the process was aimed at keeping the public out. He said he crashed secret meetings at Department of Conservation headquarters that involved the affinity groups, but no one who opposed development on the island was there.

"That's what I mean by dishonesty," Taber said.

Freeman, who like Huber, was instrumental in fighting the development of a cargo port on the island in the 1990s, questioned why Huber did not get involved in the planning process from the beginning.

Huber had bemoaned that the process included potential risks that development might pose to wetlands and other parts of the on-island ecosystem, but not how it might impact Penobscot Bay.

"You had every opportunity to be a part of this process right from the beginning... But you chose to kind of snipe at all the players," said Freeman. "Why did you choose that path instead of just getting involved?"

Huber referred to the fight over the island 15 years before, when Freeman worked with Earth First and "sent Angus King into a tizzy" with his skill as an activist and organizer.

Then he recalled the fight in 2003 and 2004 to keep a liquefied natural gas terminal from being constructed at Sears Island. After a vote from Searsport townspeople indicated they did not support such a development, the governor agreed to back off from those plans.

"When this came up, we thought we didn't have to worry," said Huber, noting Freeman and the Sierra Club were considered part of the resistance. "...Then, it was almost like the Stockholm Syndrome took place."

Huber said after he and other environmentalists trusted the process was in good hands, those in the public with views opposing island development were ignored at subsequent planning meetings.

Huber referred to three lawsuits against the state currently pending in Maine Superior Court that seek to revoke the joint-use plan, in which he is one of three plaintiffs.

Cole, who stated that transportation needs are shifting from trucking to shipping and rail use due to the need for more environmentally friendly options, questioned Taber about his perceptions on how the public feels.

"I don't hear from a lot of other people except for you and your group," said Cole. "... Could you at least conceive the possibility that you might be out of touch?"

Taber said Cole had done "a masterful job at public relations and manipulating the process from the beginning," in that people who turned out to fight for a natural island were excluded from the process.

Taber said they eventually got discouraged and gave up participating.

Taber took issue with the use of the term "compromise" when referring to the consensus agreement and joint-use plan. "You don't compromise with virginity," said Taber. "... I think you may be out of touch."

The audience turned up the heat, particularly on state officials, when it came time to take questions from the steadily growing crowd.

One woman asked Cole if a study was ever conducted that demonstrated a need for a port at the island.

Cole referred to a report completed in early 2008 by The Cornell Group out of Virginia, which indicated there was a market for such a development. He also addressed a question regarding the state's use of $100,000 to pay a consulting firm to market the island to potential port developers.

"We are aggressively marketing Sears Island to see if there is the demand that the Cornell Group said was out there," said Cole.

Cole said that should a port plan become reality, it would be through a public-private partnership, where the developer would be on the hook for design and construction costs.

Others asked what they could do to protest port development on the island.

Cole said if a port is proposed — and he stressed there are currently no plans on the table for Sears Island — it would likely go through a permitting process through the Army Corps of Engineers. That process includes a public comment period.

Jody Spear of Harborside, a neighborhood of Brooksville, criticized the state for its proposal to create a Federal Wetlands Mitigation Bank, where the 601 acres of conserved land at Sears Island would be used as the first deposit.

According to ACE, such land banks are used in other parts of the country if there is potential for wetlands damage during a project. There are several types of "credits" that a developer can withdraw from a mitigation bank to replace the "debits" that occur during construction.

Spear said she saw this as another way the state attempts to circumvent state and federal environmental regulations in the interest of getting a port on the island.

Spear pressed Damon on why hearings have not been held through the Marine Resources Committee regarding potential impacts on the marine habitat should a port come to fruition.

"Perhaps we should have some input on this," said Damon. "... We haven't done that because we're not to a point that we have any type of plan."

Harlan McLaughlin of Searsport and Fair Play for Sears Island revisited the use of the term "compromise" for his question.

"What did you give up?" McLaughlin asked the entire panel.

Damon, who noted the island was purchased by the state for transportation purposes, stated the 601 acres of conserved land constituted a compromise.

Cole agreed.

Taber said the state didn't give up as much as Damon and Cole thought, in that the 601 acres are referred to as "the buffer easement" throughout the conservation easement that is aimed at protecting the space.

"It's a buffer for a port," he said. "... It's a lousy compromise."

Freeman said he gave a little when he allowed for the possibility that a container port might be built on the island down the road, if a build-out at Mack Point is not feasible.

"My compromise was not joining this process from the beginning," said Huber. "Otherwise, I can't compromise anything."

"We compromised on a totally wild island, that's what we gave up," said McLaughlin. 

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