April 08, 2020

Preservationist proposes Sears Island compromise

SEARSPORT – Though he is squarely in the camp that wants to permanently conserve Sears Island, Scott Dickerson is working to find common ground with the group that desires to build a container port on the state-owned property.

At a meeting Monday of the committee working to draft recommendations for the island, Dickerson challenged the port proponents on the committee to consider transferring the island to Department of Conservation management.

If a port proposal won the necessary permits and were financed, then the island could return to its current status, controlled by the Department of Transportation.

Former DOT Commissioner John Melrose and others in the pro-port group did not embrace the notion, but did not reject it out of hand either.

The committee, working under the oversight of the Conservation Department, is aiming to file a report by the end of the year with Gov. John Baldacci, the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, and the town of Searsport.

The 45-member group is also aiming to reach consensus on uses for the 941-acre island, which is linked to the mainland by a causeway built in the late 1980s.

Finishing before the deadline and finding consensus have both seemed unlikely at points in the process. Monday’s meeting saw more displays of the passions that divide the camps, but there were also moments in which some of the players laid their cards on the table and seemed to look for common ground.

Transferring management of the island to the Conservation Department might seem like a win for the preservationists. But Dickerson and others in that camp have acknowledged that there is no permanence in the political realm, and so it would not achieve any final protection.

Even though Baldacci has pledged to take seriously the group’s recommendations, any future governor or Legislature could shred the committee’s report and move to build virtually anything on the island.

Conservation Department management would still mean the state controlled the island, which would make it easier for transportation proponents to push for a port than if the island were transferred to a private group like a land trust. That part of the proposal seemed to be a concession by Dickerson.

At a committee meeting in June, Dickerson, who is executive director of the Camden-based Coastal Mountains Land Trust, made a similar compromise overture.

At that time, he asked port proponents if they would abandon Sears Island in exchange for environmentalists supporting expansion of port facilities at Mack Point, which is just across a cove from the island on the mainland.

Port proponents rejected the concept, saying the dredging required for such an expansion would likely not be approved by state and federal regulatory agencies.

Melrose, who was DOT commissioner when Gov. Angus King dropped the state’s bid to build a port on Sears Island, has been direct with committee members, saying marine transportation uses should be retained as options for the island.

The deep-water access – 35-plus feet at low tide, thanks to dredging completed in 1992 – is rare on the coast, he has asserted.

Melrose and current DOT Commissioner David Cole, who was also at Monday’s meeting, have both maintained that there is no plan by state or private entities to develop a port on the island.

Cole went further, saying that a bill passed by the Legislature earlier this year and a directive from Baldacci have taken the matter out of DOT’s hands.

Any proposal for the island must come before the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, and Baldacci has stated his commitment to the committee completing its work before any proposal is entertained.

In a discussion prompted by Dickerson’s compromise overture, Melrose said the island should remain as it is now – open for passive recreational uses like hiking and kayaking – but retained by DOT for use if and when it is needed.

“What is wrong with the current situation?” Melrose asked in one exchange.

But people like Astrig Tanguay, who owns Searsport Shores Campground, which faces the island, said the cloud of uncertainty about its future discourages her from investing in her property.

“We’re hostage to this whole process,” Tanguay told the group.

Karin Tilberg, deputy commissioner of the Department of Conservation who is helping lead the committee, was not present when Dickerson made his proposal.

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