Marine transportation, recreation, education and conservation can coexist on Sears Island, according to members of the Joint Use Planning Committee, who have worked over the last nine months to delineate the island into 600 acres of conservation land and 341 acres zoned for transportation uses.

Gov. John Baldacci created the Sears Island Planning Initiative in January of 2006 in an attempt to end decades of controversy and uncertainty surrounding the island’s fate. A process that involved over 200 people created “visions” for the island and ultimately a statement of consensus. Next, a planning Committee was charged with crafting recommendations regarding land use activities on Sears Island for the  governor, the legislature’s transportation committee and the town of Searsport.

Committee members drafted two conceptual plans for the island. A transportation zone includes a 250-foot access corridor for rail and road to serve a possible container port. A report by the Cornell Group, Inc. prepared for MaineDOT provides “generic, non-site specific” plans for a small to medium-sized container terminal to handle the transfer of domestic and international goods. The report estimates an average space requirement of 272-320 acres for a two-berth terminal and a cost of $194 million.

The conservation plan shows a visitor/education building, picnic areas and toilets, trails, parking and a hand-carry boat launch. The state department of transportation (MDOT) would retain ownership of the island, with another entity holding the conservation easement — potentially Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

According to the consensus statement, committee members agreed not to oppose a port facility for “non-substantive” reasons.
Voices of dissent persist outside the planning group, however. Ron Huber of Penobscot Bay Watch has accused some on the committee, including the Sierra Club, of alienating their constituents by abandoning their historic position that Sears Island should remain undeveloped and non-industrial. Supporters of Fair Play for Sears Island continue to speak out against any dual-use plan, instead pressing for preserving the island in its current undeveloped state.

And in March, MDOT’s proposal to use the conserved portion of the island as a federal wetland mitigation bank drew fire from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “Carving up Sears Island was a bad idea a decade ago and is even a worse idea now,” said New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, “Offering Sears Island up for a wetland mitigation bank does not even pass the straight face test.” The mitigation bank would use Sears Island as mitigation for wetlands impacted by state transportation projects. The proposal describes Sears Island as “quiet and predominantly wild…a rich and diverse natural ecosystem” with unique natural and cultural character, unfragmented blocks of forest and aesthetic appeal. The report also states, “While the relatively pristine, undeveloped nature of land along the upper bay provides large blocks of habitat for a diverse ecosystem, it also provides opportunity for a number of intensive land uses. Since the development of the state’s three-port strategy in 1978, MaineDOT has anticipated the need to supplement an existing port at Mack Point. Given its proximity to the existing facilities at Mack Point and its near shore deepwater, siting a shipping and distribution facility on Sears Island remains a viable proposal.”

The next meeting of the planning committee is May 16 at the First Congregational Church in Searsport.

The planning committee includes Sandy Blitz (East-West Highway Association), Sara Bradford (Town of Stockton Springs), MDOT Commissioner David Cole, Anne Crimaudo, Scott Dickerson (Coastal Mountains Land Trust), Jim Freeman (Friends of Sears Island), James Gillway (Town of Searsport), Robert Grindrod (Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway), Rosaire Pelletier, Bruce Probert, Joan Saxe of the Maine Chapter of the Sierra Club, Dianne Smith (Town of Searsport), Eliza Townsend, Bob Ziegelaar, Steve Miller (Islesboro Islands Trust) and two alternates.