The prospect of a massive storage tank being built at Mack Point spurred discussion and debate about the character of the seaside community at a public hearing Monday, Jan. 24.

The hearing was technically focused on several specific, proposed changes to the town’s existing land use ordinance. In particular, the proposed changes would allow for taller structures to be built anywhere in the town’s industrial district, which consists of land on and around Mack Point and Kidder Point.

Comments from the public, however, were centered on one of the main reasons the changes were drafted in the first place: the proposal by Colorado-based DCP Midstream to build a large propane storage tank on property at Mack Point.

The company publicly announced its interest in building a facility in Searsport late last year. If constructed, the tank would be 137 feet tall, measure 202 feet in diameter and have a capacity of more than 20 million gallons. The company does not have a formal application filed with the town at this time, in part because the ordinance – as currently written – would prohibit a structure of that height.

The land use ordinance currently allows for principal structures up to 60 feet in height, and for accessory structures up to 125 feet in height.

The proposed ordinance changes would keep the 60-foot height requirement for buildings, but create a new class of structure called “principal structures other than buildings” that could be up to 150 feet in height. The height limit for accessory structures (examples given included cranes, silos and towers) would then be upped from 125 feet to 175 feet.

A large cargo crane slated for Mack Point would be another reason for making the proposed changes to the ordinance, Planning Board Chairman Bruce Probert explained.

It was the height of the proposed propane tank, however, that seemed to most concern residents who spoke at the hearing Monday, even though Probert tried to keep the discussion focused on the height of structures in general.

“We’re here to talk about height, not tanks,” he said.

“Well, we are, really,” countered resident Marietta Ramsdell.

“It’s in the background,” said Probert.

Tom Gozce, who lives near Mack Point on Long Cove, said he is satisfied with current regulations and expressed concern that allowing taller structures will have a negative impact on the character of the town.

“We’re not going to be able to disguise this [tank],” said Gozce, adding such a tall structure would become the “defining characteristic of the town,” which travelers from near and far would then associate with Searsport.

Gozce cited other concerns, too. He said he believes anyone whose property is within site of the proposed tank will see their property value decrease, and said there are safety concerns with fuel storage as well.

“Is it worth making the change?” Gozce asked. “I’m not sure it is.”

Probert asked Gozce how he would feel about other proposals involving different kinds of tall structures, such as the Cianbro manufacturing facility in Brewer. Probert said at one time, there was a “real possibility” of that facility coming to Searsport.

Gozce said he felt DCP Midstream’s proposal had some flaws, and worried that making the changes to the ordinance to allow them to build their tank might “open Pandora’s box.” Gozce said he didn’t want to be seen as a “NIMBY [Not In My Back Yard] guy,” but reiterated his concern the tank “doesn’t fit with the town.”

Astrig Tanguay, a co-owner of the Searsport Shores campground, said she is concerned about Searsport “being identified as the ‘town with the tank.'” The tank, she said, would feel too industrial and send a message that Searsport is only a place to work and not a place to live or play.

Tanguay went through a list of other tall structures in the state, including Penobscot Narrows Bridge between Prospect and Verona. Tanguay said the proposed propane storage tank would be taller than the 135-foot distance between the bridge’s roadway and the river below. She did not mention, however, that the towers of the bridge each stand more than 400 feet above the ground.

“I’m really concerned about the size [of the tank], and the way it’s going to change us,” said Tanguay.

Ramsdell spoke next, expressing concern about how the tank might affect the view of tourists and others coming in to Searsport from the water.

“How far down the bay will they be able to see that tank?” she asked.

Phyllis Sommer expressed concern about the process by which the proposed ordinance change had been drafted. She said it felt like the process had become “reversed,” and the town is suggesting changes to appease a possible new business.

“We’re trying to accommodate a potential [developer] whose specifics we know nothing about,” said Sommer.

Not everyone was opposed to the tank, though. Brenda Birgfeld, who said she has lived in Searsport since 1972, said although she’d like to live in a “pristine place,” industry is needed to ensure older residents aren’t forced out of their homes by rising property taxes and so younger residents can have a place to work.

Birgfeld also questioned the claim that the tank would change the character of the town, referring to industrial facilities already in place on both Mack and Kidder points.

“People who moved here knew the docks were there,” she said. “That’s not something new that came into Searsport.”

Steven Tanguay, husband of Astrig Tanguay and co-owner of Searsport Shores, rebutted Birgfeld’s commentary by speaking in defense of locally-owned businesses, which he said pump more money into the local economy than do big, out-of-state companies. He also said quality of life matters to the new generation of employees.

“Young people want to work where it’s a nice place to live,” said Steven Tanguay.

When Steven Tanguay was done speaking, Probert thanked him and his family “for what you do for the community.”

Christine Cuneo-LaReau suggested the company might try and be more creative with the design of the proposed tank, and in that way be “more respectful of what the community is trying to do.”

After about 45 minutes of comment from the public, Probert closed the public hearing and explained what would happen next. There will be a special meeting of the planning board Monday, Feb. 7, at which time the board will discuss input provided by residents. Although the only chance for spoken commentary was at the Jan. 24 hearing, written comments will be accepted up until the Feb. 7 meeting.

Once the board has had a chance to discuss the proposed ordinance changes further, a final draft will be produced. That, in turn, will be voted on by residents at the annual Town Meeting in March. What happens at that meeting, according to a DCP Midstream official, will determine what happens next for the company.

“If [the ordinance] changes, then we will be able to look at moving forward,” said Project Manager David Graham. “If it doesn’t change, then we won’t be able to look at moving forward.”

Graham said the company wants to listen to concerns people have, and find ways to address those concerns if possible.