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Sears Island Home| Preserve | MDOT's Wetland Mitigation Proposal | History


History of Sears Island


Update - May 2008

After more than thirty five years of controversy over what many call the “jewel” in Penobscot Bay, the Sierra Club and others concerned about the environment have helped to develop a plan that finally creates and codifies a permanent conservation easement on 600 acres, including an impressive four miles of coastline, myriad acres of wetland habitat and public access.


 The Sierra Club has never endorsed a port on Sears Island.   Our position has, among other things, been to emphasize that a Mack Point build out is essential and that appropriate uses for  Mack Point and Sears Island are compatibly managed marine transportation, recreation, education and conservation.  According to the 2007 Sears Island Planning Initiative consensus agreement, “It is understood that none of the parties are endorsing in advance any proposal for a marine transportation facility”.


Information and documents of the Sears Island Planning Initiative and the Joint Use Planning Committee process can be found on:


Recent History

In 1978 the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) proposed a cargo terminal on the island. In 1984, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for a Cargo Port project for its Clean Water Act permit review. The Corps refused.


The Sierra Club then requested a preliminary injunction of the project, filing court claim that the Corps violated the Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act by not requiring an Environmental Impact Statement. The causeway to the island was begun in 1985 without proper permits.


After years of challenges by the Sierra Club, EPA, and others, the EPA, Conservation Law Foundation and the Sierra Club signed a consent decree settling the Sears Island wetland enforcement case, requiring restoration. The state bought the island to be overseen by the MDOT. In 1997 Governor King called the cargo port project to a halt over concern for the cost to the state and in recognition of the negative environmental impacts.


In October 2004 following controversy over a proposed LNG terminal on the island, environmental groups met with the MDOT, representatives of several other state agencies and officials from Searsport to begin crafting an open and inclusive public participation process regarding the future of Sears Island. 


In the spring of 2005 the Sierra Club and others fought off a bill that would have required that Sears Island be managed primarily for industrial and commercial purposes.  We supported an amendment that changed the title and removed language from the bill that required Sears Island to be managed primarily for industrial and commercial purposes.  However, the law requires that the Commissioner of DOT bring before the joint standing committee of the Legislature, having jurisdiction over transportation matters for review and approval, any proposal that would alter the current land use, ownership or jurisdiction of lands owned by the State within the Port of Searsport (presently under the jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation).

Following many meetings and conversations with MDOT and the Governor, asking for public input to agree upon a common solution for the island’s future, Governor Baldacci provided an opportunity to demonstrate that 30 years of acrimony and controversy can be put aside during his administration in favor of a sound, inclusive process designed to produce a good outcome.  In January 2006 a Scoping Session attended by stakeholders including the Sierra Club, was convened by the Governor to agree on a design for a stakeholder/public participation process which would consider future uses for Sears Island, and develop a consensus plan for those uses.  From this and subsequent scoping meetings a facilitator was chosen and the concept of the Sears Island Planning Initiative (SIPI) planning committee evolved. The first meeting was held in Searsport on May 25, 2006.  The committee was made up of a diverse group which included environmentalists, officials of Searsport, Stockton Springs and Waldo County, business owners, mariners, fisherman, people in the tourist industry and property owners.  


During the next year of often contentious meetings, a consensus agreement was signed on April 12, 2007 (Read the agreement here).  From that a smaller committee, the Joint Use Planning Committee (JUPC), was established to implement the SIPI agreement.


The JUPC was charged with delivering a Memorandum of Agreement based on seven specific categories according to the SIPI consensus agreement made earlier this year.  The charge was to neither plan a park nor to plan a port.   The real purpose of the SIPI agreement is to:

  1. draft mutually acceptable buffer easement language which references a baseline natural resource inventory,

  2. fix the boundaries of the two areas in a way which reserves adequate acreage for a potential port while creating a functional area for conservation, recreation and education,

  3. help convey a deed with easement restrictions to the buffer easement holder,

  4. determine appropriate access issues,

  5. develop a plan for annual revenues to be paid to the Town of Searsport,

  6. identify options for mitigation for a potential port, and

  7. consider any other issues necessary to effectuate this Consensus Agreement, and incorporate them into a Memorandum of Agreement.


Neither the SIPI agreement nor the JUPC process expects any individual or organization to comment on the viability of any of the potential future uses. For example, transportation interests participating in the JUPC are not asked, nor should they need to publicly address, what they think about conservation, recreation and education Sears Island uses and whether they believe those uses can coexist with potential transportation uses.  We are enthusiastic about the opportunity to provide such a large area that can be used for conservation, education and recreation. Neither side (transportation interests nor conservation interests), has been asked to endorse any effort of the other side. There is no current site specific port development plan in hand.


Early History of Sears Island
What is now known as Sears Island was left behind when the last glacier retreated 12,000 years ago. Indians living in the Penobscot Bay region frequented the island. The island was first called Wassumkeag, “bright sand beach”. Many English and French explorers came to the bay in the sixteenth century.

Captain John Smith wrote about the region praising its, “…rocky isles so furnished with good Woods, Springs, Fruits, Fish and Fowle.” The American Revolution brought squatters to Sears Island. The first, Job Pendleton, arrived sometime before 1775. An American ship “Defense” was sunk in the harbor next to the island, and the squatters fled rather than face the enemy soldiers. Peace returned, and six families were settled on the island by 1790. In 1813 the island became a dairy farm owned by the Sears family. In 1905 The Bangor & Aroostook Railway bought the island for a tourist destination, which failed with the rising popularity of cars.

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