A Maine Superior Court Judge has dismissed three civil lawsuits against the state Department of Transportation over a joint-use plan for Sears Island, noting that damages claimed in all three suits were based on a “hypothetical” future for the 941-acre island.

Justice Jeffrey Hjelm Sept. 8 dismissed the three civil suits against the DOT that were filed by Ron Huber of Rockland, Harlan McLaughlin of Searsport and Douglas Watts of Augusta. Court documents state that Hjelm’s decision is based on his finding that the damages claimed by each of the plaintiffs are based on a development that has not, and may not, happen.

Huber, McLaughlin and Watts filed civil suits in February 2009, after the execution of a conservation easement on about 600 acres of Sears Island in January of the same year. As part of a joint-use agreement, the remaining 340 acres of the island were set aside for possible transportation development in the future.

Huber, McLaughlin and Watts each claimed that a Jan. 22, 2009, executive order from Gov. John E. Baldacci ordering the DOT to “actively and aggressively” work to market — and potentially develop — a port on Mack Point and Sears Island would have harmed their continued enjoyment of an undeveloped island. Huber also claimed that the order affected his freedom of worship, as he stated in his complaint that he was charged in 1992 “by Almighty God with stewarding and restoring; in particular the brackish water nurseries and diadromous fish shelter habitats surrounding Sears Island in Searsport Harbor.”

The suits additionally claimed that the conservation easement between DOT and the Maine Coast Heritage Trust violated state law as well as Maine’s Sensible Transportation Planning Act.

In his decision, Hjelm stated, “It is clear from these allegations that the injuries claimed by the plaintiffs would arise from the development of the transportation parcel. The plaintiffs purport to challenge the creation of the conservation easement, but they do so not because they claim the conservation easement itself harms their claimed interests. In fact, preservation of the land within the scope of the protected property is fully consistent with the nature of the interests on which they rely as a foundation for this action. Rather, they contest the creation of the conservation easement only because they view it as a prelude to the commercial development of the island, which would occur on the transportation parcel.”

Hjelm also stated that although the plaintiffs argue that they have “sustained a legally cognizable injury arising from the implementation of environmental protections” to the conserved portion of the island, he ruled that “execution of the executive order has not created any injury that would give any of the plaintiffs standing to pursue the challenges they assert here.”

Hjelm further explained in his decision that Huber’s, McLaughlin’s and Watts’ claims that the DOT’s actions caused them to sustain any injury are “premature,” because a port has not, and may not ever, be constructed on the island.

“Here, the plaintiffs’ allegations do not suggest that they have sustained an actual injury or face true exposure to such an injury in the future that would justify present judicial intervention. Rather, the record indicates only that the state is committed to market and then try to develop a commercial facility to be located on the transportation parcel… As of the present, the plaintiffs’ interests as described in their complaints have not been damaged. Further, on this record, such injury cannot be viewed as imminent. The controversy between the plaintiffs and the defendant is therefore not yet a ‘real’ one.”

Hjelm stated in closing that the suits were being dismissed for lack of standing.

“Obviously, we’re pleased that the court did rule in our favor and that the lawsuits were dismissed,” said DOT Public Information Officer Mark Latti.

Latti said DOT officials have not given up on a possible port development for the island in the future, but as it stands there are no potential applicants coming forward. The poor economy, said Latti, is likely a contributing factor.

“That is a huge part of it, I think a lot of developers are waiting to see what does happen with the recession,” he said. “I think that’s what’s happening on a lot of projects. But the mechanism is there to develop that area.”

In a press release dated Sept. 14, Huber stated that he was disappointed by the ruling, but not surprised.

“Judge Hjelm postponed decision on the case for nearly two years, waiting to see if Maine DOT might find a prospective port applicant. The state never did…” Huber said. “This left the judge with no recourse but to dismiss the case for lack of a tangible development project that might injure the island and the plaintiffs.”

Huber said this week’s court ruling does not mean that similar lawsuits will not be filed in the future, should the DOT get an applicant to construct a port on the island.

“We’ll be watching them like hawks,” he said. “If and when MDOT’s port plan pops out of the bushes, we’ll be ready and waiting.”