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Lawmakers at a crossroads over potential development of Sears Island for offshore wind port


Lawmakers at a crossroads over potential development of Sears Island for offshore wind port

Apr 16, 2024 | 10:14 am ET
By AnnMarie Hilton
Lawmakers at a crossroads over potential development of Sears Island for offshore wind port
A map of the proposed offshore wind port on Sears Island in Searsport, Maine. (AnnMarie Hilton/ Maine Morning Star)

A sand dune in Penobscot Bay has left the Maine Legislature divided on a bill that’s needed to continue the permitting process for the state’s desired location for an offshore wind port. 

In February, Gov. Janet Mills announced that Sears Island in Searsport is the preferred site for a designated port to support the state’s budding offshore wind industry because of what she described as its economic and environmental opportunities. The state owns the land, but it is protected under the Natural Resources Protection Act, which prohibits new or expanded structures on coastal sand dunes.

Because of that, Rep. Gerry Runte (D-York) brought forward a bill on Mills’ behalf that would authorize the Department of Environmental Protection to grant an exception for the site, allowing permitting for the port to proceed, so long as all other applicable permitting and licensing criteria are met. Essentially, LD 2266 ensures that Sears Island can continue to be part of the consideration process for where to place an offshore wind port, despite the presence of a sand dune that could be disrupted. 

“Passing LD 2266 does not ensure that a port would be developed on Sears Island, but rejecting it would close a door that we might very much need open,” said Kathleen Meil, senior director of policy and partnerships for Maine Conservation Voters.

In the House of Representatives, the bill failed to gain enough support with a 65-80 vote that split both parties. Discussion on the House floor focused on a particular sand dune on Sears Island that could be damaged by building the offshore wind port. Critics worried about the destruction of the dune as well as the precedent it would set, while others saw the impact on the dune as a necessary albeit unfortunate step toward achieving the greater environmental benefits offshore wind may bring.

Sen. Stacy Brenner (D-Cumberland) said Maine is at an “inflection point with an opportunity to decide to participate in the economic development opportunity available,” adding that “we leave federal money, thousands of jobs and countless business opportunities on the table by not moving forward with the development of a port in Maine.” 

The bill passed in the Senate with a 21-13 vote that split both parties. Democrats were largely in favor of the bill, but they were joined by three Republicans. Three Democrats opposed the bill, including Sen. Ben Chipman (D-Cumberland) who said he’s not convinced the development can’t happen on Mack Point, an alternative option for the port site. 

With the Senate’s approval Monday night, the bill will go back to the House to see if the two chambers can come to an agreement. 

‘Tale of two dunes’

Rep. Lori Gramlich (D-Old Orchard Beach) said she supports offshore wind as a means to reach Maine’s climate goals, but she also supports protecting “precious sand dunes,” so she voted against the bill.

And Rep. Jan Dodge (D-Belfast) said she feared future implications for other dunes along the coast of Maine if the state sets a precedent at Sears Island of bypassing dune protection regulations. 

Francis Eanes, executive director of the Maine Labor Climate Council, appreciates the rhetoric from the environmental community that sand dunes are important for protecting coastal communities and ecosystems from erosion and storm intense storm damage, but he said when it comes to “this particular sand dune, not so much.”

“I think there’s a tale of two sand dunes happening here,” he said. 

The broader principle of protecting dunes is important, Eanes said, but we need to distinguish between broad principles and greater climate goals, especially for a dune that may not be as critical as others.

As James Gillway, the town manager for Searsport, sees it, this particular dune is a “mess that mother nature has deposited because of our intervention.” 

He shared that in his testimony to the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, where he also explained that the dune was formed after a causeway and jetty were installed. The jetty in particular is trapping sand that would have been on the sandbar between the island and the mainland. 

“I would describe it more as a dangerous debris pile of trash and wood with sand mixed in,” he wrote to the committee. He ended by telling them that he believes it needs to be cleaned up and removed. 

The effort to develop Sears Island has also generated attention from other area residents. 

Some residents are thankful for the prospect of new jobs since Searsport and the surrounding region has faced economic challenges in the past decade after a paper mill closed and took more than 500 jobs with it. Others have protested the port in an effort to protect the island. 

Residents are expected to bring their concerns to the town selectboard Tuesday night. More than 100 residents signed a petition that will be submitted to the board in support of the port, according to a news release from Eanes. However, Citizens to Protect Sears Island will be asking the board to urge Mills to make Mack Point the preferred site for the port, according to a news release the grassroots organization sent Tuesday.  

House split on Sears Island development 

During the House debate, Runte reminded his colleagues that two-thirds of Sears Island is in a permanent easement and would remain untouched by the port, which will be built on the other third outside of the protected area. 

Other lawmakers also spoke in support of the proposal.

“The bill is not a green light for construction on Sears Island,” said Rep. William Bridgeo (D-Augusta). But, he added, “It does open the door to an extensive study and permitting process that might lead to that development.”

Rep. Dick Campbell (R-Orrington) was one of nine House Republicans who supported the bill. He said he feared that Mack Point would require dredging that could create even worse impacts on the environment. 

Calling Sears Island a “local treasure” in her district, Rep. Reagan Paul (R-Winterport) said she saw Mack Point as the better option. She voted in opposition to the bill after saying that it’s not a vote against offshore wind, but “a vote to protect Sears Island.”

Rep. Aaron Dana, who represents the Passamaquoddy Tribe, stood in opposition to offshore wind as a whole, expressing worries about disruptions to marine ecosystems. Specific to the bill at hand, Dana said the industrialization of Sears Island “desecrates” sacred tribal land on the island.