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State lawmakers clear potential roadblock in developing a wind terminal on Sears Island

The quiet east side of Sears Island.
Murray Carpenter
Maine Public
The quiet east side of Sears Island.

State lawmakers have endorsed a measure that should clear a roadblock in developing a proposed wind terminal on a sand dune on Sears Island.

The House reversed course Wednesday evening with a vote of 77-65 in favor of the bill, after the Senate endorsed the measure earlier this week. The measure initially failed in the House by a vote of 65-80.

The bill had emerged as a flashpoint in the debate over the location for the wind terminal project, and over offshore wind development more broadly.

The state owns the 940-acre Sears Island, and the Mills administration, along with a coalition of some labor and conservation groups, view it as the least expensive and easiest location to develop as an offshore wind development hub and kickstart Maine's transition to renewable energy. Gov. Janet Mills announced Sears Island as the state's preferred location back in February.

In the waning weeks of the legislative session, the Maine Department of Transportation said it had learned that a sand dune, which is less than half an acre in size, is located within the 100-acre parcel that it envisioned as the site of a future wind port.

The measure, known as LD 2266, makes an exception to the state's sand dune protections and will allow the Department of Environmental Protection to consider permit applications for a proposed wind port on Sears Island.

"It would not clear the runway to build that port, but it would allow consideration and the thorough environmental analysis that will happen as a part of that permit review," Kathleen Meil, director of policy and partnerships with Maine Conservation Voters, said of the legislative proposal.

Meil said the sand dune exception served as an example of the kinds of tradeoffs and compromises that will have to be made in pursuit of larger climate solutions. And she said that both state and federal agencies will have to consider alternative locations for the proposed port as part of a lengthy review process.

The legislative debate state lawmakers, and not along party lines. State Rep. Dick Campbell, R-Orrington, said he supported the measure, which he viewed more as a vehicle for constructing a third port in Maine.

"I'm not seeing this as destroying dunes," Campbell said Wednesday evening from the House floor. "Also in this bill, there are funds for other dunes across the state that could be supported, rebuilt and replenished."

But for Rep. Holly Eaton, D- Deer Isle, she believes Sears Island should be preserved as the last remaining community resource that's undeveloped.

"We have resolved that [wind] is coming, and we support the work that it will bring and the jobs that it will bring," she said Thursday in a phone interview. "But it's frustrating to not be heard about our own backyard and how we can best support the process."

The outcome also disappointed a number of citizens groups on the last day of the legislative session, which believe a proposed wind terminal should be sited near existing industrial facilities on Mack Point instead.

"We saw LD 2266 as both a stepping stone for the administration to pursue Sears Island as its preferred site for the wind port, and also an attack on environmental protections," said Chris Buchanan, a Searsport resident who helped start the volunteer-led Citizens to Protect Sears Island.

Buchanan said the citizens group doesn't have a position on offshore wind but will be "present" for the legal challenges that other local and national groups have indicated they will pursue against the Sears Island proposal.

The Maine Department of Transportation has said it intends to begin submitting state and federal permit applications for the proposed Sears Island wind port project starting this fall.