SEARSPORT — Maine’s Department of Transportation has applied for a permit to begin clearing trees to do test borings on Sears Island in conjunction with a proposed offshore wind project in Penobscot Bay. Islesboro Islands Trust has asked DOT to withdraw the application.

The state of Maine plans to use Searsport as a hub for building floating offshore wind turbines. At issue is the location for that work; Sears Island has been identified as a less expensive alternative, while the already industrialized Mack Point, though more expensive ($450.6 million, or $166.7 million more than on Sears Island, according to a state-commissioned study), is the preference of conservation groups.

In a May 17 press release, Islesboro Islands Trust said it has urged DOT Commissioner Bruce Van Note to withdraw its Natural Resource Protection Act permit application to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to begin work on the island before “full consideration” is given to Mack Point as an alternative site.

IIT said the work would involve “clearing trees, creating access ways that cross at least three wetlands and one perennial stream, performing soil borings and soil test pits in upland locations to collect samples, and undertaking marine borings with a drill rig on a barge positioned by a tug boat to collect samples, all on or immediately off the western shore of Sears Island.”

James Gillway, Searsport town manager and chairman of Offshore Wind Port Advisory Group, said the proposed work on Sears Island is necessary to properly evaluate the island as a location. Speaking with The Republican Journal by phone May 17, Gillway said DOT’s application is “part of doing their due diligence to know what they’re up against. It wasn’t to advance the project as much as to find out what would potentially lie ahead if — and only if — that were chosen as a site to move forward on.

“We already know what’s on Mack Point,” he said. “That’s pretty well documented. But without a report on what exists, it’s kind of hard to evaluate multiple sites. … I don’t think it advances Sears Island as the potential site as much as it gives good information as to what to evaluate.”

Not in conservation area

With respect to clearing trees and creating access ways, Gillway said, “In order to get a boring machine — a drill — on the island where they need to know what’s under the ground, you’ve got to take a few trees out. … And it’s all on the side that was negotiated in the agreement for transportation purposes. It’s not on the conservation side at all.”

Gillway was referring to the Sears Island Planning Initiative Steering Consensus Agreement dated April 12, 2007, that was implemented by an Executive Order from then-Gov. John Baldacci. Islesboro Islands Trust was a member of the Sears Island Planning Initiative, which led to that agreement.

The 936-acre island is owned by the state of Maine. The Consensus Agreement established a 601-acre Conservation Area on the east side of the island, with the remaining 335 acres to be held in reserve for possible future use as a “cargo or container port.”

Mack Point preferred port site

The Consensus Agreement requires that Mack Point be given preference for any port development, IIT noted in its press release. The Consensus Agreement also requires that Maine DOT will work collaboratively and in good faith with the members of the Steering Committee to implement the terms of the Consensus Agreement, IIT said in its press release.

“In apparent disregard of the Consensus Agreement, the DOT submitted the NRPA Permit by Rule on April 28, 2022, as part of the DOT’s efforts to develop Sears Island as a fabrication site and port for Maine’s offshore wind projects,” IIT said in its press release.

“IIT supports the offshore wind project initiative. However, the Trust (as well as the Select Board for Islesboro) favors locating the offshore wind fabrication area and port at Mack Point if such an offshore wind facility is to be built in Penobscot Bay.”

The letter to Van Note said, “It is inappropriate for the DOT to initiate the development process for a fabrication site and port at Sears Island before full consideration is given to the Mack Point site,” especially since the Offshore Wind Port Advisory Group advisory process sponsored by Maine DOT will not begin until May 26. It undermines confidence in that process to have the DOT demonstrate a preference for Sears Island for the fabrication site and port in advance of a full review of the Mack Point site.”

Gillway pointed out that the committee he chairs is charged with evaluating and advising DOT on the suitability of “all sites” for building the turbines. “It’s not a Searsport-centric organization,” he said. “We’re looking at the industry and all sites that could potentially help advance offshore wind.”

He went on, “Nowadays everything is looked at as a hub and spoke. If Searsport is the hub, spokes of it would go out to other ports to bring in materials and different things, and then construct or assemble offshore wind in this deepwater port that we have.

“I’m always an advocate of getting as much information about a subject as possible,” Gillway said of the testing permit requested for Sears Island. “I’ve not been instructed, nor am I predisposed as to where this needs to go. I just want to make sure, 1. it gets done, and 2. that Searsport is a benefactor of it.”

He noted that Searsport is a deepwater port “with a lot of resources as far as rail and highway connections, (and) a pretty good workforce to draw from around Searsport. I think we’re in a perfect position to help advance offshore wind. But, again, I’d like to see all the information we can get.”

The Offshore Wind Port Advisory Group’s meeting Thursday, May 26, will be held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Union Hall in Searsport. It will be livestreamed and broadcast on Searsport’s TV station, Gillway said.