Searsport Planning Board Speaks Out About DCP
Democracy in action-
Thursday, May 02, 2013 6:19 AM
For the past year, the Searsport Planning Board agreed not to speak to each other, or anyone else, about what they thought about the plans to build a 22.7-million-gallon propane facility at Mack Point. Their lawyer told them to hold all discussions in public, and Planning Board Chairman Bruce Probert backed that up by asking the board to accept a gag order.
As of April 17, the planning board voted unanimously to deny the DCP Midstream/
Searsport application because it failed to meet the site plan and land use ordinances.
With that, the gag order was lifted and three Searsport planning board members spoke to The Free Press about the process, which started unofficially three years ago when Town Manager James Gillway, and Planning Board Chairman Bruce Probert met with representatives from DCP Midstream and Sprague Energy on the Searsport docks.
"I suppose DCP had been talking to Sprague for a while," said Probert. "But that was the first we heard of it."
DCP was negotiating an option to build a pipeline across Sprague land, an option they would exercise only if the town approved the propane facility.
DCP had questions about the height ordinance in the industrial zone. Sprague did, too. They wanted the height raised so they could put in a tall crane to offload cargo from the public dock - a crane whose cost was later approved by Maine voters in a bond referendum. Sprague also had preliminary plans to build silos to hold wood pellets, which they were already exporting. At that point, DCP was just a proposal.
"That was the only meeting we had that was not public," said Probert.
"When Jim Gillway and I sat down with them at Sprague, DCP said they were coming here with a $50 million plan," he said. "Well, it sounded pretty good to me. It's propane, it's a clean fuel, you can spill it, it's not going to be a problem that way. I said, hey, this is a lot better than a chemical or something like that. If height is a problem, let's get that taken up at town meeting. If it passes, then let's hear the proposal."
Searsport: A Deep Divide Breeds Mistrust
Maine has three deepwater ports: Portland, Eastport and Searsport. In the shipping world, Searsport is seen as drastically underutilized. It has never come close to operating at capacity. It is on the brink of growing; shipping is less expensive than moving bulk cargo by truck or train and creates the lowest environmental impact of the three.
Probert worked as a stevedore on the Searsport docks for decades and favors industrial growth on the waterfront, particularly at the cargo port. He grew up in Searsport when farmers took temporary jobs on the docks unloading cargo, then headed home to milk the cows. Main Street looked pretty shabby in the 1950s. Things were tight. People made do.
"They dug some clams, cut some wood. There weren't a lot of dollars around. Those longtime families that worked the docks, well, whenever something came around, if it had to do with jobs and labor, boy, full steam ahead. Never mind the environment or something else. They were working people. There was just a handful of summer people, then."
He has been privy to a lot of change. Probert has served on the Searsport Planning Board for over 45 years.
Probert saw a significant shift in the population of Searsport in the late 1980s. More retirees started moving in and they had more money. Main Street got spruced up. Many of the people now living along the Route 1 corridor of Searsport, particularly on the oceanside, live in Maine in the warmer weather and migrate south in winter.
"I'd say probably a third of them are snowbirds," said Probert. They're retired, so jobs don't matter to them personally, and they don't necessarily want more industry in town. More people want to live here and that's all they want to do."
In Maine, industry is not the employer it once was, either. It may not be obvious on the surface, but Searsport is as global and mobile as anywhere.
One Searsport man sells prepaid phones and phone cards over the Internet and gets 15 percent of the total of every phone bill. He can run the whole business off of his smartphone.
"He doesn't need a permit," said Probert. "There's no impact."
Another Searsport business buys cars at auction, refurbishes them, than sells them to overseas buyers. The cars never even come to Searsport.
Searsport, like a lot of small Maine towns, is still in the process of finding its economic footing in the 21st century. But Searsport is not like other Maine towns in one unique way: the deepwater port.
For the past 50 years, Searsport has been divided about the value of the waterfront, with the conflict centered around Sears Island. In turn, a nuclear power plant, an aluminum smelting plant, a coal-fired electric plant, and a container port were proposed for Sears Island. Local opposition prevailed or the timing was wrong, or both. They all failed. The State of Maine bought the property and, when an LNG terminal was proposed in 2003, the opposition rallied and, after years of wrangling, an agreement was worked out that put two-thirds of Sears Island under a conservation easement and left one third open for port expansion.
But half a century of division between those who favored the higher wages that industrial jobs offer and environmentalists who had successfully opposed industrial development on the waterfront had left a deep divide that DCP Midstream may not have fully appreciated when they eyed the undeveloped industrial land on the Searsport waterfront. Coupled with the increasing retiree population, DCP had some selling to do, if they wanted to get the thing built.
DCP and the Public Relations Push
They started all wrong.
"When we met DCP at Sprague and heard about the idea, they asked us to keep it quiet for competitive reasons," said Probert.
Kelly Boden, one of the Verrill Dana attorneys from Portland who represented DCP in Searsport, offered to draft the height ordinance to be voted on at town meeting.
"We went along with it," said Probert. "We had public hearings on it. We didn't have an application at the time and it would give them an opportunity to make a proposal."
The next time Probert heard anything about DCP was in June 2010, when the town fire chief came back from a meeting with fellow firefighters in New Hampshire. The New Hampshire crowd wanted to know when the propane tank was going to be built in Searsport.
Searsport had heard nothing from DCP, said Probert.
"I think they thought they would come in here and just whistle it through," said Probert.
The Searsport Planning Board requires applicants to have all federal and state permits approved before applying for local permits. Not all towns do this. Thomaston, for example, was reviewing the town site plan application for the Super Walmart at the same time the company was pursuing state environmental and traffic permits.
DCP wanted to follow the Thomaston model, but the Searsport Planning Board said no. They wanted a complete application, nothing less.
Meanwhile, opposition to the DCP propane facility was mounting. A grassroots effort to stall the project led to a town-wide vote on a moratorium that would require a review of all town ordinances.
All Sides Lawyer-Up
DCP Midstream set out to defeat the moratorium. They employed a public relations firm to set up a temporary office in town and hired canvassers to go door-to-door and hand out pamphlets about the tank, emphasizing jobs, commerce and safe, clean energy.
"They talked, saying they were going to be a great member of the community," said Probert. "They supported the golf tournament and gave some money to the food pantry, and they did some other things, some without fanfare."
On Saturday, March 10, 2012, the town voted the moratorium down, leaving DCP in the catbird seat.
"On Monday, DCP was gone," said Probert. "I thought that was shabby.... Okay, I got my vote. I paid for this dance and now I'm out of here."
The grassroots opposition, which originally had no real leader and had been long on passion and short on facts, had morphed into professional opposition with a coordinator and a team of lawyers. They may not have had unlimited funds, as many people thought, but they had access to deep pockets when necessary. They paid top dollar to line up expert testimony, particularly on safety concerns.
The planning board had a lawyer, too. Belfast attorney Kristin Collins guided them every step of the way. DCP's lawyers, including Boden, represented the company more often than DCP employees did.
Probert said usually the applicant talks with the planning board in meetings that are open to the public. But after the planning board hired Collins to advise them through the process, DCP Midstream stopped talking, said Probert, and all communication was through their lawyers.
"Usually, we sit down with an applicant and work things out. We go back and forth and come up with solutions," he said. "We could have done it with this one. The way this worked, they put their application in and that was it."
It would have taken some real work, though: the site was too small for what they wanted. DCP would have had to acquire more land, scale down the size of the tank, or made other modifications, said Probert.DCP Flubs It
"Look, they did not do a good job," said Probert, referring to DCP. "They were lackadaisical. Number one, it was embarrassing they didn't know where their property lines were. They didn't know the lot on the corner was for sale. They didn't know the gas pipeline wasn't on their property. You've got to do your homework."
"It would have been smart to have options on Buddy Hall's property and all around. They only had an option on the Sprague property."
Hall owns Angler's Restaurant and Bait's Motel, located adjacent to the proposed propane tank site.
"I don't know if that would have worked, if DCP acquired everything between Route 1 and the water," said Probert. "They could have gone to town meeting to have the area changed to an industrial zone. Let the people decide."
"They knew stuff ahead of time," he said. "They knew their administration building was a problem two years ago." The administration building was not located in the industrial zone, but in a commercial zone.
"And property values?" said Probert. "They weren't addressing them. We had five studies that said the property values were going to go down and they offered nothing."
"They dragged about the balloon test, they niggled about a few thousand dollars here and there. We would ask for something and often they wouldn't give it."
"They never did do the 3-D model. What was that about? Was it just to piss off the opposition?" said Probert. "What they did provide was a joke. They could have done a better job. A junior high school kid could have done a better job."
"Look, when the Navy SEALs went in and took care of bin Laden they had a scale model of the place by that afternoon. Are you telling me that DCP doesn't have those kinds of resources?"
Probert's conclusion was that DCP didn't want people to see a 3-D model.
"The scale model would have been overwhelming," he said. "That's why."
As to the safety concerns, Probert said the Good Harbor report commissioned by the Islesboro Island Trust and Thanks But No Tank brought up an important point: the cost for training and additional funding for mutual aid. It needed to be in writing, and it wasn't.
Anti-Tank Protesters Alienate Residents
"The number of town meetings was the biggest difference in this process, compared to others that come before us," said Keith Ritchie, the vice chairman of the planning board. Ritchie, who was in favor of the tank project, did not vote on the DCP application because his land abuts the property where the tank would have been located.
The planning board meetings sometimes got personal and sometimes got nasty, said Ritchie.
"What some people didn't understand is that the planning board has to accept the application, once it's complete, period," said Ritchie. "Some people felt we shouldn't accept the application, but the planning board can't do that."
"The thing I sweated most was the first round of public hearings," said Probert. "I didn't know what would happen. You've got 300 people there in November and I didn't know if you were going to have a full-scale riot, or what."
"People got a little rowdier than I thought they would," agreed Brian Callahan, another member of the Searsport Planning Board. Some members felt threatened.
"The anger was disconcerting," said Callahan.
"Still, I'd rather have people that care about where they are," he said. "I'd rather have that than someone who doesn't give a damn."
The planning board agreed to hear comments from Searsport residents and from those in other towns, but it didn't go smoothly.
"I think the planning board was treated very badly," said Ritchie, who initially disagreed with letting non-Searsport residents speak, but changed his mind when it became clear the project would affect the entire area.
"People said things they never should have said," said Ritchie, noting that one planning board member hovered on the brink of resigning during the process because of the intimidation.
"Really, I think it backfired," said Ritchie. "It made more people support the tank. Whatever they said, didn't make a difference in the end. It was defeated because it didn't fit the ordinance."
But it cut deep both ways and it wasn't clean.
Some who favored the tank retaliated against those opposing it. The owners of Searsport Shores Campground were singled out for multiple state inspections initiated by a town official who was later forced to resign. Others boycotted Angler's Restaurant because the owner, Buddy Hall, was upset with the big tank being 100 feet out his back door.
"Right to the end, there was a deep division in town," said Ritchie.
The Planning Board Votes No
When all the data and the statements were through and the planning board sat down to deliberate in March, Probert said he asked help from God.
Probert also insisted on absolute transparency of the board's deliberations.
"We had a couple of members of the board who wanted to have a secret ballot. I said no, you're not going to have a secret ballot. We're transparent. If you do vote for one, I'll tell everyone how I voted and, through a process of elimination, they will know how you
"But once we started going through the application, it was amazing how easy it was. We went through the facts and took the emotion out of it. We went through the performance standards."
Callahan had created a database using Microsoft Word and every night after a planning board meeting, or the next morning, he cross-referenced the 18 criteria in the town ordinances with the testimony and reports presented at the meeting.
"I looked at the Fannon report, for example," said Callahan, referring to an independent report commissioned by the planning board. "I looked at the 18 criteria and asked where does it fit? Does it pass the standard or not pass it?"
At the beginning of the process, Callahan thought the project might work out, but over the course of a year and a half, DCP had become more and more reluctant to work with the town, said Callahan.
"It was sort of like peeling back an onion," he said. "The deeper down you got, the more you found out."
"There was lots of repetition, but every once in a while someone would say something in the middle of that and I'd say, okay, I've got to write that down."
When the board sat down to deliberate on its own, Callahan's homework paid off.
"The process helped me make a decision," said Callahan. "The process is designed to bring out the facts. We had to work hard to be impartial and then the answer would be right there. We want you to do business here, in Searsport, but we need to protect the health and safety of the town."
"The best thing we did was get a lawyer to help us through it," he said. The process was the same as approving an application for a barber shop or a restaurant, but the stakes were higher.
The planning board acted professionally, with mutual respect among members, said Callahan. It did the job it was supposed to do.
The town is remarkably fortunate to have Bruce Probert at the helm of the planning board, he said.
"The personal demeanor of the chairman mattered a lot. Bruce is the glue. It takes a lot to upset him and he worked to keep the board together. It was his leadership that kept the board calm."
In the end, the criteria in the town ordinances themselves led the planning board, step by careful step, to the conclusion that the DCP Midstream/Searsport application did not meet the standards for approval of the site plan ordinance and the land use ordinance.
"If they didn't meet just one standard, then that's it," said Ritchie. "They don't pass."
Democracy is often seen as a grand idea, but in the small towns of Maine, it's not grand at all. In Searsport, for the deliberations on one of the largest propane facilities in the country, democracy played out upstairs in the old Union Hall theater, with its worn linoleum floors, hard wooden chairs, wonky heat, stark fluorescent lighting and occasionally screechy microphones. Planning board members - all volunteers - came straight from their day jobs or supper, carrying reams of paper and wearing boots.
One board member routinely brought a can of Moxie to keep him going through the hours sitting listening to the dryest points of the site plan application while sitting under the scrutiny of an unpredictable crowd that occasionally erupted in anger.
Except for the chairman, planning board members rarely spoke and didn't react to provocation on the part of the crowd. Occasionally, one would ask a few questions, but it was hard to tell what they were thinking, even then.
Not so grand, after all, but not that easy, either, to give up your free time, represent your town, face the anger of your neighbors who you will later see at the grocery store, remain deliberative and keep faith in the democratic process through it all.
"Overall, I thought the process was pretty good," said Callahan. "It brought out everything we needed to do to get the thing done."
The process also brought out some contradictions in the legal language of the Searsport Land Use Ordinance and the Site Plan Ordinance.
With the help of their lawyer, the planning board plans to address the discrepancies this summer and put the amended ordinances in front of voters at the annual town meeting next March.
"It has to be at the annual town meeting," said Probert.
"It's the only way," said Ritchie. "You have to have it at the annual town meeting. Not that many people go to special town meetings and something could pass and people wouldn't even know it happened."