SEARSPORT, Maine — In many ways, Searsport now is a town divided over what some see as the promise and some see as the threat of a massive liquid propane terminal project.
That division can be seen in the proliferation of signs for and against the controversial $40 million project, which is being developed by DCP Midstream, a Denver-based propane company.
Closer to Route 1, the waterfront and the big houses built by sea captains of a different century, the signs generally say, “Thanks But No Tank,” and residents are in favor of a moratorium which would slow the project down and perhaps halt it altogether.
But away from the village center, on the country roads that fan into the surrounding hills and past sometimes-hardscrabble homesteads, a proliferation of blue-and-white signs say something quite different. These show support for the project, which if approved would include a 138-foot-tall propane storage tank to be constructed at the Mack Point industrial zone and at least a dozen permanent, full-time jobs.
“I’m definitely for the gas plant,” Lisa Juszkiewicz of Searsport said Monday morning. “I think it’s going to create a lot of revenue. I think it will create a lot of jobs.”
She and her husband, Leon, came to the town office and received information about municipal elections on Tuesday, March 6, and the annual town meeting on Saturday, March 10.
They are trying to become more active in community decisions, she said, and the proposed tank is one big reason why.
“That’s what the people of Maine need,” she said. “This is one of the brokest states, it’s sad to say.”
Just blocks away, at Left Bank Books on Main Street, co-owner Lindsay McGuire said she wished she could vote for the moratorium. She does not live in Searsport, but the tank would affect her business, she believes.
“We’re all extremely concerned,” she said from inside the cozy bookstore. “Because of the increased traffic on Route 1, it will be horrific … Our business will be directly impacted.”
On Saturday, the town will decide what to do about the moratorium, which was drafted by the citizen opposition group Thanks But No Tank. If the six-month moratorium on liquid propane gas terminals passes, it will be retroactive to Nov. 23, 2011. A nine-person committee composed of three members appointed by the Searsport Board of Selectmen, three members of Thanks But Not Tank and three members randomly chosen from a pool of volunteers then would have until May 20 to make some determinations crucial to the project.
They would review the town’s existing comprehensive plan and ordinances to see if those guidelines “sufficiently protect the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of Searsport from the development of a liquid propane gas terminal and storage facility in the town,” according to the article on the town meeting warrant.
If the committee finds that the answer is no, townspeople would have to vote on any proposed changes to the land use ordinances at the next annual town meeting in March 2013, according to Town Manager James Gillway.
While it’s true that Searsport already has a set of rules in place to guide industrial developments — there are 30 or so smaller tanks at the tank farm at Mack Point — Gillway said that residents have argued that the existing regulations are inadequate for the DCP Midstream project.
“These major, huge developments don’t come around all the time,” he said.
The issue is important regionally as well. Late last month, a letter was sent by a Sierra Club Maine official to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expressing concerns about the terminal and requesting that a thorough environmental impact statement be required before permitting the project. The Islesboro Board of Selectmen also wrote a similar letter to the federal agency.
Becky Bartovics of the Sierra Club wrote that the construction could affect recently restored clam flats and wetlands as well as “create an eyesore that will severely impact the local economy.”
She mentioned some of the other concerns broadcast by project opponents as well, including the possibility of danger from a spill or explosion and the visual impact of a gas relief flare system.
“No one is going to want to rent their summer dream cottage to stare at a New Jersey style gas flaring operation,” Bartovics wrote.
But an economic impact statement released last week suggests that those fears are unfounded. Charles Colgan, associate director of the Maine Center of Business and Economic Research, said that the tank would bring Searsport significant tax revenue and some jobs and would not harm the tourism economy.
“There should be no detectable impact on tourism activities in the town,” Colgan wrote in the 50-page study that was paid for by DCP Midstream.
In the report, he stated that Portland Pipeline Co.’s storage tanks are located near Casco Bay’s well-trafficked tourist attractions and that the large tanks there have little or no effect on visitors.
Astrig Tanguay of Thanks But No Tank said Monday that her group has many concerns.
“We want to know what further industrialization will do to the region. We want to know what happens when we put more fuel trucks on the road. We want to know about the cumulative pollution,” she said.
The grass-roots group had Mark Anderson, a senior instructor at the University of Maine School of Economics, prepare a brief study highlighting potential significant economic impacts of the tank. Those include possible harm to property values in Searsport and communities to the north and south and even on the opposite shore of Penobscot Bay, he wrote.
“In addition to potential adverse effects on property values, the tourism economy of an undetermined portion of the Penobscot Bay Region is also potentially degraded by this development,” Anderson wrote in his two-page document. “My professional judgment is that without further study, we should assume that impacts on property values and the tourism economy are adverse and significant.”
Tanguay said that her group recently has been trying to get the word out about the municipal election and annual town meeting. People have been making phone calls, going door-to-door and canvassing the community.
“People understand that even if they may decide in the end that the tank is a good thing, there’s a ton of concern,” Tanguay said.
But Roz Elliott of DCP Midstream said that her company has been working hard to answer questions from residents and also to encourage voters to turn down the moratorium. Company canvassers also have been going door-to-door for the last couple of months to initiate a dialogue with residents.
“We’ve seen a lot of people say, ‘oh, I get it,’” Elliott said. “People genuinely want the opportunities, the property values. It really means the world to them. There’s a lot of hope out there.”
Voters will elect two selectmen, an RSU 20 director and nine members of the budget advisory committee in the municipal election that begins at 8 a.m. Tuesday, March 6, at the Searsport Public Safety Building.
The annual town meeting will begin at 9 a.m. Saturday, March 10, at the Searsport High School gym.
BDN writer Heather Steeves contributed to this report.