AUGUSTA – Gov. John Baldacci remains committed to a “positive and productive future for Sears Island,” his office said Thursday.
The governor expressed his disappointment with a unanimous decision by the Legislature’s Transportation Committee on Tuesday to leave temporarily unsigned a negotiated agreement that balanced industrial and environmental concerns over the island’s use.
“The governor believes that the Joint Use Planning Committee’s Final Report struck an important balance and is disappointed that the Transportation Committee decision effectively undermined the agreement, rendering it inoperable,” said Joy Leach, deputy director of communications for the Governor’s Office.
Baldacci said he would work with the Legislature to implement the agreement.
“He cannot and does not want to cut the Legislature out of the process,” Leach said.
The Transportation Committee met Tuesday in Augusta to review and act upon the JUPC final report.
The JUPC’s final report states that 330 acres of the 931-acre island in upper Penobscot Bay off Searsport would be set aside for development of a cargo port, and the remaining 601 acres would be placed in a conservation easement under control of Maine Coast Heritage Trust. The conservation portion of the island would be protected from development.
The legislative panel unanimously endorsed the recommendations of the JUPC report, but decided to delay its implementation and execution of the conservation easement until all the necessary permits for a cargo port have been approved.
Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner David Cole wrote in an e-mail to the governor’s senior policy adviser, Karin Tilberg, which she shared with the Bangor Daily News, that he had discussed the matter with the governor.
“[The governor] remains firmly committed to the existing framework as laid out in the JUPC final report, which allows for the conservation easement to go forward and would not be contingent on securing necessary permits for a port,” Cole said.
“Accordingly, the governor will be submitting legislation for the next session that will allow for the implementation of the recommendations of the JUPC Final Report, including enabling language for the conservation easement,” Cole said.
Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, and panel member Sen. Christine Savage, R-Union, both indicated that state statute gives their committee authority for Sears Island.
“Any change of use or ownership on Sears Island must meet the approval of the committee having jurisdiction over transportation, and that’s obviously the Transportation Committee,” Damon said. “That’s why the issue came to us to begin with.”
He said he had since talked with some people from the Governor’s Office who think the committee’s decisions makes the JUPC agreement null and void.
“I don’t see how we’ve undermined the work of the [Joint Use Planning Committee], and I don’t see how we’ve made the agreement inoperable,” Damon said.
“I couldn’t understand that,” he said. “We did not change a single period or comma or capital letter in the agreement.”
Savage explained that the decision to delay the conservation easement until port permits could be obtained was done to ensure that conservationists didn’t try to protect the land designated for the cargo port after the agreement was signed.
“It’s the people who were not on the committee who worry me,” she said. “As soon as it’s signed, they want to start working to pin down the other 300 acres.”
Damon said, “As is our prerogative, as legislators, we directed the Department of Transportation to move forward, with all practicable speed, to secure a port permit for Sears Island.”