How Sears Island Was Saved
In January the governor signed an agreement, balancing conservation with commerce, into law.
- By: Jeff Clark
For decades the largest undeveloped island on the U.S. eastern seaboard has been a source of controversy. Conservationists viewed Sears Island as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to preserve a place of scenic beauty for future generations. Business interests wanted to transform it into an engine to power the state’s economy. No compromise seemed possible. But in 2006, Maine Governor John E. Baldacci sought to put the controversy to rest once and for all. He created a task force representing every possible opinion about the Searsport island and told them to come up with a solution. Amazingly, they did. And in January, the governor signed an agreement, combining conservation and commerce, into law. If politics truly is the art of the possible, then what happened on Sears Island represents government’s potential to bridge seemingly unbridgeable divides. For these accomplishments, the editors of this magazine are pleased to present the thirty-first annual Down East Environmental Award to Governor John E. Baldacci and the members of the Sears Island Planning Iniative.
Back in the mid-1970s a former brother-in-law of mine worked as a security guard on Sears Island in Penobscot Bay, watching over the equipment gauging the island’s potential as the site of a nuclear power plant. In the early 1980s a cousin who owned a real estate business in nearby Belfast had a desk drawer full of signed options to buy land on Sears Island as soon as the cargo and cruise ship port, then planned for it, was approved over the objections of environmentalists. In 1996 I wrote an article for Down East about the battle over the state’s plans to build a container cargo port there, and I waxed rather rhapsodic about the island’s unspoiled beauty and peacefulness. A local newspaper editor promptly castigated me as a Volvo-driving, yuppie out-of-stater who was trying to take real Maine jobs from real Maine people. He conveniently ignored the fact that as a Belfast teenager in 1966 I had sold him his daily pack of unfiltered Lucky Strikes over the counter at Palmer’s Stationery.
Oil refinery, aluminum smelter, coal-fired power plant, liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal, nuclear power station — Mainers have argued over their dreams and plans about Sears Island for more than four decades. As one of the last remaining sites
suitable for a deepwater port in Maine, business and government officials have long seen it as the key component of an industrial revival in the Penobscot Bay region. As the largest remaining undeveloped island on the East Coast accessible by car, conservationists have hoped to preserve it for just as long. Led by the Maine chapter of the Sierra Club, they went to court repeatedly in the 1980s and ’90s over state attempts to build port facilities on the island.
The result was one of the most acrimonious business-environmental splits in the state. “Sears Island” became verbal shorthand for the growing levels of distrust between the conservation and commerce communities. Even famously even-tempered Governor Angus King bitterly blamed rulings by the Environmental Protection Agency and the unending court battles with conservationists when he announced in March 1996 that he was suspending state efforts to build a cargo port on the island. Three weeks later he short-circuited plans by environmentalists to buy the island for preservation by announcing that the state would purchase Sears Island in Searsport to maintain its potential as a future port, which he did in November 1997. And just to be sure that the port option stayed on the table, control of the island was handed to the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT), rather than to any of the state’s conservation agencies.
The island remained in limbo for a decade, a place of dog walkers and deer hunters, until a short-lived proposal to build a liquified natural gas terminal several years ago brought all the old arguments bubbling to the surface again. Governor John Baldacci decided it was time to settle a controversy that had stymied every governor since Ken Curtis, and he used a method that by every rule in the political playbook should have doomed the effort to failure. In the summer of 2006 he created the Sears Island Planning Initiative (SIPI), a committee of forty-six people representing every possible opinion about the island, and told them to come up with a solution.
Amazingly, two years later they did, adopting a compromise that gave 330 acres of the 931-acre island over to potential port development and protecting the rest with a conservation easement held by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust. A smaller task force, the Sears Island Joint Use Planning Committee, spent another year nailing down the boundaries between the two sections. Last November jubilant committee members and the governor’s office presented the package to the legislature’s Transportation Committee for its expected approval.
And were turned down, cold.
While the legislative committee nominally endorsed the agreement and praised the people involved, the legislators unanimously voted not to approve the necessary conservation easement until the MDOT had the port construction permits in hand, a process that could take five years or more. Several legislators said they didn’t trust the environmental community to back off from its opposition to a port. Holding the easement hostage to construction permits was their only leverage, they said.
Governor Baldacci declared himself seriously disappointed and talked of using his executive powers to accomplish what the legislature wouldn’t. Sears Island committee members who had invested three years building trust and rapport among the various sides said the vote had set back progress on the island’s fate by twenty years. Sears Island appeared to be heading back into limbo.
Karin Tilberg remembers the first meetings of the Sears Island Planning Initiative as “terrifying.” Tilberg, an attorney with a long and respected history of involvement in environmental issues and organizations in Maine, was then deputy commissioner for the Department of Conservation. Baldacci had named her to cochair the initiative with Searsport resident Dianne Smith. “Passions were very strong,” recalls Tilberg, now a top aide to the governor.
The size of the committee was an early issue — “Many people said we should have a smaller group,” Tilberg says — but the big tent was a deliberate strategy, according to the governor. “We had to have all the different stakeholders in the process,” Baldacci explains. “We wanted everyone under the tent taking part in the discussion rather than outside it throwing stones.”
Led by Tilberg, Smith, and professional facilitator Jonathan Reitman, the committee decided early that the goal would be consensus — no split decisions, no minority reports. And yet at the same time, the members very quickly divided into opposing camps. “One group wanted the entire island opened for development,” recalls Scott Dickerson, executive director of the Coastal Mountains Land Trust in Camden and a SIPI member. “Another group wanted the entire island preserved.”
For the next several months both sides concentrated on us versus them. But along the way they also came to realize that they’d been offered a chance for resolution that might not come again. “There was this long history of all or nothing,” Dickerson continues, “and it always ended up with nothing. From the conservationists’ point of view, ‘nothing’ was considered a victory, but only for that moment, because you knew that another proposal would come along, and they’d have to mount another effort. They were on this treadmill, with the prospect that sooner or later they would lose.”
“We’d just gotten past a very scary LNG proposal,” adds Steve Miller, executive director of the Islesboro Island Land Trust and a longtime opponent of development on Sears Island. “Many of us said, ‘Well, if the governor is serious, let’s give it our best shot.’ It seemed like a good time to seek some kind of resolution.”
MDOT Commissioner David Cole, also a committee member, had been an advocate of developing the island since a stint with the Bangor-based Eastern Maine Development Corporation back in 1979. Before becoming commissioner, he had been treasurer of the Maine Port Authority. He brought almost three decades of frustration to the table. “Early on [in the SIPI process] I obviously thought it would be a big challenge to find a solution,” he allows. “I certainly had hopes we could work through it, but I was very aware of the history of Sears Island.”
Cole says overcoming decades worth of perceptions — and misperceptions — on such a polarizing issue took time. “People got to know each other,” he muses. “Sure, maybe — well, certainly — we didn’t agree, but we built trust. Things got demystified over time, such as the conservationists’ concept of what a container port would actually involve and our conception of what the conservationist side wanted.”
“We really avoided the word ‘compromise,’ ” notes Dianne Smith. “The emphasis was on consensus. That put the focus not on what people lost but what they gained.” Smith notes that both sides came to agree on certain issues — the need for jobs in the midcoast region, the need to conserve recreation and tourism opportunities, the need to provide Maine and the nation with the means to import and export goods quickly. “Irving is already building a big container port in Canada,” Smith points out. “Did we want that to happen with trucks then driving those containers to the Midwest or did we want them moving by rail to and from Searsport, which reduces the carbon footprint by a third or more? That’s one thing that helped persuade Steve Miller and others. A container port in Searsport, where the rail line can carry double-stacked containers as far as Chicago, is actually much greener and environmentally sound than just about anywhere else on the East Coast.”
In the background throughout the Sears Island negotiations was John Baldacci. He had made it plain at the beginning that failure was not an option, and he encouraged the committees forward whenever things started to bog down. “The governor’s involvement was very important,” says Steve Miller. “I don’t know that we would have been functioning without the governor’s support. He was critical.”
“The governor was behind us every step of the way,” Cole adds. Cole says he realized a solution was possible “when we actually all started talking about reserving a portion of the island for a port if we could justify the need and meet environmental standards, how the island would be co-managed and how the two pieces would work together. Once I saw that acknowledgement, I knew we were on our way to a solution.
“[MDOT] went into the process with the understanding that we didn’t need the entire island for marine transportation,” Cole adds. “My core belief was that we could develop a dual use that would satisfy everyone.”
Even after two years of meetings, the final agreement came about only after several days of shuttle diplomacy by Tilberg, Smith, and Reitman among the various factions. “Even at the final vote we weren’t sure who was going to come down where,” Dickerson recalls. For Miller, the final wording of the agreement was crucial, because it committed all sides to support both the conservation of two-thirds of the island and eventual port development on the remaining third.
“It takes a careful read,” Miller cautions. “Many in the media fail to appreciate that what we signed onto was appropriate uses for Mack Point [the existing port facility on the mainland facing Sears Island in Searsport] and Sears Island. Never was it agreed that all those uses had to be on Sears Island.” Indeed, the MDOT has to show that further port expansion at Mack Point is not possible before Sears Island can be considered.
Miller also emphasizes that conservationists agreed not to oppose a port on Sears Island on non-substantive grounds. “We won’t oppose it for frivolous reasons,” Miller agrees. “But is filling in wetlands a substantive reason? I would say yes. Substantive is the critical word in that document.”
In the end, all but four members signed on to the final agreement. The holdouts can accurately be described as representing the extreme ends of both the pro-development and the pro-conservation sides. Given the bi-partisan approach taken throughout the process, the proposed bill seemed poised for quick passage but instead ran into the shocking and unexpected roadblock from the Transportation Committee.
Our committee’s concern was that we’d gone through this entire process, and in the end there wouldn’t be a transportation component on the island,” explains Senator Dennis Damon, the Hancock Democrat who chairs the legislature’s Transportation Committee. “The feeling of the committee was that if we’re going to take this step of allowing two-thirds of the island to be forever protected, then we wanted some assurance that the port was going forward on the rest of it.”
Damon recognizes now that the surprise vote to indefinitely block the agreed upon conservation easement “put everyone into a tailspin, including the executive branch.” At the time, however, he was quoted in the media as saying he didn’t understand the controversy. “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 told the Bangor Daily News. “We did not change a single period or comma or capital letter in the agreement.”
At a meeting with Baldacci after Christmas, Damon received assurances that the governor would issue an executive order requiring the MDOT to move ahead with marketing and permitting the port with all due speed. Shortly after the new legislature convened in January, Damon brought the issue back to his committee, where it won approval on an 11-2 vote. Baldacci signed the agreement into law a week later.
Tilberg says the Sears Island Planning Initiative proved that even the most seemingly intractable issues have solutions if Mainers are willing to listen to each other. “It’s scary to do so, but it’s critical,” she says. “I don’t think anyone got everything they wanted, but everyone had their core needs met.”
“It showed what could be accomplished despite a mountain of naysayers,” Baldacci concludes. “The tendency sometimes is that it’s easier to fight than to get along. [The committee] took the more difficult path and succeeded.”
Dickerson acknowledges that the entire process “involved huge risks and huge opportunities. It would not have happened without Governor Baldacci’s steadfast commitment to seeing this through.” Nor, it’s safe to say, without the commitment of an improbable and often irascible group of Mainers who decided that what was best for Maine was more important than what was best for them.
- By: Jeff Clark