Sears Island may have escaped a possible LNG port proposal last year, but all isn’t as quiet is it seems. The LNG interest was just the latest in a long history of grand ideas for the island, reinvigorating debate over how the town of Searsport could develop it for economic benefit while preserving its ecological significance.
A year ago, the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT), which owns Sears Island, proposed that the town form a local committee to “facilitate the process of finding acceptable and compatible uses for Sears Island in order to maintain its integrity and still afford some sort of tax base for the municipality.”
The Sears Island Alternative Uses Committee (SIAUC) completed its report and planned to send it to the state for review this month. The report is not a “plan” for the island, says committee chair Dianne Smith, “It’s a description of a range of uses for the island that would be compatible. These are just ideas.”
The Alternative Uses Committee is a 24-member group of Searsport residents, many of whom serve on other town committees.
Another group of citizens under the name Protect Sears Island is also weighing in with its own ideas. “We are looking at three development scenarios of low, mid- and high-intensity,” says member Steve Miller. “All of them are eco-friendly and are consistent with the range of options presented by SIAUC.”
This past spring, Searsport selectmen and the state Transportation Department signed a memorandum of understanding that would set aside 280 acres on the island’s western side for possible future industrial development. But recognizing that the state has no proposals now or in the foreseeable future for any part of the island, neither the town committee nor Protect Sears Island is including industrial or transportation uses in their respective visions. “The most that any development could take up is 140 acres,” says SIAUC’s Smith, “We are recommending minimum development.”
SIAUC has no authority; that power lies in Searsport’s comprehensive plan committee, which is in the process of writing land use ordinances. The comprehensive plan was approved two years ago, but without any ordinances besides shoreland zoning, the plan has no teeth. As zoning currently stands, houses could be built on the island, something that SIAUC doesn’t support. The group does consider a conference or lodging facility, but most of the uses are passive recreation, including a network of improved trails.
After final approval by the Searsport selectmen and comprehensive plan committee, the report will go to the Department of Transportation and other state agencies for their consideration. The hope is that the report will serve as a jumping-off point for public discussion, not likely to be a smooth process given the island’s history. “Sears Island has been battled over for 30 years. I can’t believe it’s suddenly going to be easy,” says Miller.
Protect Sears Island has been pressing the state for greater public involvement in the planning process. “The governor promised a broad public stakeholder process, which began last July and got put on hold while the Alternative Uses Committee developed their report. MDOT will open up the public process this fall,” said Miller. “We’re engaged in this dialogue for the benefit of this region and for Sears Island.”
Whatever ends up as the preferred plan for Sears Island will have to go before the legislature’s Transportation Committee, thanks to legislation that passed in May requiring committee review.
Catherine Schmitt writes about science and the environment from her home in Bangor.