April 07, 2020

Sears Island surprise

The struggle to protect Sears Island from ill-conceived development schemes, from both the left and the right, continues. As a member of the state-sponsored initiative to develop a recommendation for the future of Sears Island, I’d like to bring you up to date on our progress.

After months of meetings, three affinity groups with three separate ideas have evolved. These three ideas will morph into one during the upcoming drafting portion of the process. For your convenience, I have attempted to summarize the positions these groups have taken publicly.

The first group is made up of the pro-port people. They believe there will come a time when a port on Sears Island is vital to Maine’s economic growth and they admit that time is not now. They want to keep their options for future port development on the island open. They don’t want additional obstacles to project approval. They want to keep the island undeveloped to act as a buffer zone for Mack Point and they want to keep the Maine Department of Transportation in a managerial role.

The second group, a homogenous group of Penobscot Bay-area residents, including The Sierra Club, Islesboro Island Trust, Coastal Mountains Land Trust and Protect Sears Island, wants to remove DOT from any managerial responsibility. They propose developing the island with “improvements” (buildings and parking lots) costing from $1.5 million to $10 million. They claim this development is necessary to preclude any future transportation uses. They want to save the island by developing it.

The third group is Fair Play for Sears Island. We are a group of land conservationists who want to keep the island undeveloped. We come from all walks of life and all income levels from across the state. We believe Sears Island belongs to us all, not just those who can see it from their lawns.

Our proposal allows for the people of Maine to use the island as a nonmotorized, nondeveloped recreation area right now, and at the same time, leaves open the door to future port development. We believe setting parameters, that include no buildings and no cars, will make it easier for future conservationists to keep the island wild. Banning motorized vehicles from the island eliminates many potential problems. Before the gate was installed, the island was covered with waste and garbage. Since the gate was introduced, the garbage has disappeared.

Our plan is simple, immediately implementable, involves little or no cost and requires little or no change. It allows for continued DOT involvement and it doesn’t attempt to bind the future with manipulative symbolic gestures. Our vision is not in conflict with future port development. It preserves that option without guaranteeing it. Any changes of use of the island will require legislative approval and only proposals with significant statewide economic potential will be considered. We believe those best equipped to make decisions about the future are the people of the future.

We are asking for existing law to be changed to include the recreational area in the current use. We want representatives from DOT, the Maine Department of Conservation, a local friends group and a land trust to develop administrative guidelines for the recreation area allowing DOT to remain in the managerial loop.

Our plan includes low-impact changes like an enhanced trail system and bog bridges, viewing areas, educational signs, kiosks, handicapped beach access, family area, composting toilets, hand-carry boat launch and an administrative structure (hut) and gate at the island’s entrance. Parking will be off the island, on either the causeway or the mainland. Our idea calls for emergency-official vehicles only on the island and no buildings.

We don’t want to open the door to developmental creep with a symbolic buildings and parking lots. We think it is wiser to leave the door to development tightly shut than to open it, even just a crack. Remember, Manhattan once looked a lot like Sears Island, but that was before they built the first cabin and corral.

The next step will involve drafting a proposal. Representatives from the three affinity groups will meet soon to do just that. We are hoping the environmentalists will drop their demands for development on the island and the pro-porters will agree to some wording changes to LD 277 (existing law). We see Fair Play as the moderates and the agents of compromise (surprise).

We expect support for this idea to continue growing and we predict a recommendation for a wild (nondeveloped) island for the governor. Help us, if you can, by telling someone how you feel.

For more information on who we are and what we think, check us out at FairPlayForSearsIsland.Org

Harlan McLaughlin, of Searsport, is president of Fair Play For Sears Island.

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