SEARSPORT — In August, the state conducted testing on an area of Sears Island to see if it is suitable for the state’s proposed windmill port. Some think the idea of developing part of the island for the clean energy- sector project aligns with values of existing conservation easements, one of which protects the larger portion of the island, while others want the state to focus on other available sites and leave the island untouched.

As climate change progresses and Maine moves to meet Gov. Mills’ climate goal of carbon neutrality by 2045, the state is looking to build a deepwater wind turbine port where large wind turbine parts can be produced and shipped along the Eastern Seaboard by boat.

Right now, the primary location where the state is looking to build the port is a previously developed site on Mack Point in Searsport, but it is also considering other sites across the state, including one on Sears Island.

Developing the site on Mack Point comes with some issues the state would have to address and a higher overall project cost.

Penobscot Bay and River Pilots Association President and Offshore Wind Port Advisory Group member David Gelinas does not want the state to miss the opportunity to be a leader in the growing offshore wind turbine industry, he said.

He also thinks it is important to develop a port of this kind to meet the governor’s state renewable energy goals.

“We’re not going to make it if we can’t get ahead on this floating offshore wind,” he said. “I mean it’s crucial; it’s crucial to the administration’s renewable energy goals that we develop this … floating offshore wind capability.”

The idea of the port is in keeping with Maine’s maritime heritage, and putting it on Sears Island could create a place where public recreation cohabits with development, he said — not to mention the possible economic benefits to the state.

“I think it’s entirely in keeping with the character of the Maine coast and our seafaring heritage, as well as the tremendous graduates that Maine Maritime puts out to go into the maritime field,” he said. “It just ties in so much with the capabilities and the past history of this state that I think we’re well-positioned to take advantage of it, and it’s a natural fit, but we need a proper facility to do it.”

At the advisory group’s July 7 meeting, Gelinas highlighted 185-acre Point Pleasant Park in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that is situated right next to a busy cargo port as a successful example of development cohabiting with public recreation. It still preserves coastal ecosystems and has cultural value despite sitting next to an industrial area, he said.

Sears Island has about 600-acres of land in conservation, with 335 acres of the island still available for use as a port. Gelinas thinks having the wind turbine port on the island could give people another reason to visit it.

People read about the nature and history of Sears Island during a visit Sept. 2. Photo by Kendra Caruso

There are opportunities for a welcome and learning center on the island where people can go to learn about the nature of the island along with the state’s role in the offshore wind turbine port industry, he said.

But Offshore Wind Port Advisory Group member and Islesboro Island Institute Executive Director Stephen Miller does not share Gelinas’ vision. He thinks developing a port of this magnitude would completely change the island’s character and could result in fewer people recreating on it.

Miller said loud equipment noises, bright lights and fenced-in areas do not seem compatible, right next to a recreational area. He sees a cumulative benefit to keeping the ecology of the whole island intact. It is likely that species of conservation interest are living in vernal pools and forested wetlands in the area of the island reserved for development that would be flattened and filled.

He believes some of that development area on the island has eel grass beds, which benefit many creatures in the bay, providing shelter and food, he said.

If the port is built on Sears Island, people might still visit the island but he questions how that might compare to the benefits that people are enjoying on the island now. Overdevelopment has driven global climate change, and if the state wants to meet its climate goals it needs to preserve forested areas, not cut them down, he said.

In 2021, Gov. Mills signed an executive order creating the Maine Forest Carbon Task Force, which is supposed to help build upon the state’s efforts to preserve carbon sequestering forests, according to a Feb. 3, 2021, press release. About 89% of Maine is covered in forests and those forests sequester at least 60% of the carbon people in the state release annually, according to the press release.

“You can’t develop everything and expect the climate to not respond. We really need to be very strategic and very careful about what we do and also when we say no,” Miller said. “We have to be able to say no. We have to be able to say the environment matters.”

He has been disheartened by all the conversation around developing the island without thoroughly considering the site at Mack Point first, he said. The Sears Island Planning Initiative requires that Mack Point be given first consideration for any type of development before looking at Sears Island. And Miller does not think the state has considered the site at Mack Point thoroughly enough to even be thinking about Sears Island for this project right now.

The general vicinity where the state is considering a wind turbine port as seen from a Fournier Tugs Inc. tug boat Sept. 2. Photo by Kendra Caruso

Gelinas thinks some people will be turned off by any industry near natural places, but there are many more areas of the state where people can experience just nature, he said. He thinks there will be people looking to use the island’s recreation trail system and learn about renewable energy and floating offshore wind turbines.

“If there was any one reason to create a port facility on Sears Island, this would be it,” he said. “I mean this is imperative for the state’s future and my big concern is that this is going to get dragged out. … I really think this is a good opportunity for the state and I just hope we don’t miss it.”

Miller acknowledges that there are complications to developing the project at Mack Point but the complications are not fatal to the project, he said. He thinks cutting down part of a forest to develop this project on the island does not make sense when there is an alternative site nearby at Mack Point that is already developed.

“So, there’s idle land at Mack Point that could be converted into renewable energy activity. It’s like a no-brainer,” he said.

A view from Belfast

Just down the bay in Belfast, the Harbor Walk is a public recreation trail that intersects with Front Street Shipyard. The trail, acquired through public easements with property owners, is under a mile long but follows along Belfast Bay and is widely used by residents and visitors, Belfast City Councilor Mike Hurley said.

Despite passing through one of the biggest shipyards on the East Coast, the city has had no major issues between the public and the shipyard, he said. The company deals with minor issues that arise but there have been no safety issues.

The shipyard will temporarily require people to go around the building along Front Street when it is placing ships in the water but most people enjoy getting a firsthand view of boats that they would not be able to see elsewhere, he said. There have not been many people avoiding the Harbor Walk because of the shipyard.

Hurley believes the biggest hurdle for the wind turbine port on Sears Island is its opposition. Industry and public recreation would interact well enough on the island, he said, but the project could wind up being delayed several years if the state decides to pursue the site because opponents will file legal grievances that tend to take years to work through.

“People can coexist with this stuff,” he said. “The question is, will they want to, and right now many of them won’t want to.”

It took Belfast three or four years to get all of the easements it needed for the Harbor Walk and adjacent Rail Trail, he said. And there was stark opposition to it at times from property owners.

Hurley said he would hate to see the state lose out on an opportunity like building this kind of a wind turbine port because it was delayed in court battles several years. He thinks it should be built at Mack Point for that reason.

“If it costs you $50 million more to do it over on Mack point, just do it over there…. At least it’ll be done in the next 100 years, you know. That said, who knows, it’s not my fight.”

 

Sears Island Sept. 2. Photo by Kendra Caruso

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