In January, the State of Maine placed two-thirds of Sears Island under a conservation easement, protecting that portion of the island from development while leaving the remaining one-third open for a possible container port.

Depending on one’s perspective, the conservation agreement was anywhere from four to 40 years in the making. The fate of Sears Island has been clouded in uncertainty and strong feelings since the state’s failed attempt to build a cargo port on the island in the 1990s. A 2003 proposal for a liquefied natural gas plan reignited the debate over the island, prompting intervention by Gov. John Baldacci.

After a consensus-building effort among stakeholders, Baldacci directed a Joint Use Planning Committee to establish a line of demarcation between potential transportation and conservation areas, and determine appropriate uses for both. However, the Joint Use Planning Committee was turned away in November when they presented their findings to the Joint Standing Committee on Transportation. The Maine Department of Transportation maintains jurisdiction of the island, and a 2005 law mandates that any uses of the island be approved by legislative committee.

Under pressure from Gov. Baldacci, the transportation committee voted 10-2 to accept the joint use agreement in January, clearing the way for the conservation easement to be secured. The decision was not without reservations.

“I’m a little dismayed at the whole procedure,” said Rep. Richard Cebra (R-Naples). “I don’t trust the Governor’s office. This committee made a unanimous decision in November that was good for everybody, and now we’re going to throw that aside and I think that’s wrong.” Cebra and others on the committee expressed concern that environmental groups, not satisfied with 600 acres, would continue to oppose a port proposal. Some stakeholders have also expressed concern about wetland mitigation. Under the joint use agreement, the Department of Transportation may implement the creation, enhancement, and restoration of wetlands within the protected part of the island “to compensate for unavoidable wetland impacts of transportation activities on or near Sears Island or other areas of the State of Maine by Maine DOT.”

Rep. Douglas Thomas (R-Ripley) agreed with Cebra. “It’s a frustration. What would the State of Maine look like if we had built a container port on Sears Island 30, 40 years ago when we first started? I believe we are never going to see any kind of port development in my lifetime.”

Committee Chairman Sen. Dennis Damon (D-Hancock), tried to assure the committee that a port was still on the table for the remaining 300-plus acres. “I have had communication with the Commissioner of Transportation that there be regular reports as to the progress they are making with regards to the marketing of Sears Island for a cargo terminal,” he said.

“Gov. Baldacci is extremely pleased by the transportation committee’s endorsement of the hard work, inclusive process and sound recommendations of the Sears Island Planning Initiative Joint Use Planning Committee,” said Karin Tilberg of the Governor’s office, who participated in the process. “The legislative committee’s approval enables a balanced resolution regarding the appropriate land uses for Sears Island to move forward. It recognizes the strong community involvement from the people of Searsport and neighboring communities as well as the willingness of many diverse interests to find a workable and fair solution regarding the future of Sears Island. This historic outcome will result in many benefits to Maine citizens, businesses and the environment far into the future.”