Maine Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt will attend the next meeting of the Newcastle Board of Selectmen to discuss the Sherman Marsh Wetland Bank project.
The meeting will take place in the community room of the fire station, at 86 River Road, at 6 p.m., Monday, Dec. 12.
The meeting will be the latest in a series of discussions about the project between Newcastle town officials, local property owners, and representatives of the Maine Department of Transportation.
As part of the Sherman Marsh Wetland Bank project, the department would purchase conservation easements on properties surrounding the marsh, in Newcastle and Edgecomb. The area of the easements would total approximately 130 acres.
By placing the conservation easements, the DOT would create a wetland bank to offset the impact of transportation projects on wetlands elsewhere in the state.
The project has been met with opposition from most of the property owners it would impact and from Newcastle town officials.
Property owners have expressed frustration about the restrictions the DOT would place on their land once the easements go into effect and about the amount of land in question.
After meeting with DOT officials in June and August, Newcastle town officials hoped to meet with Bernhardt to discuss the purpose of the Sherman Marsh project.
In October, the selectmen invited Bernhardt; members of an “interagency review team” made up of officials from federal and state agencies involved in the project; the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners; Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville; Rep. Mick Devin, D-Newcastle; and Gov. Paul LePage to attend a meeting to discuss the project.
Of those invited, only Johnson and Lincoln County Commissioners Bill Blodgett and Mary Trescot attended the Oct. 3 meeting.
In a letter to Newcastle Town Administrator Jon Duke, Bernhardt said he was unable to attend the meeting due to a previously scheduled department obligation.
Since the meeting, there has been an ongoing effort by the selectmen to set up a meeting with Bernhardt, Duke said. The effort, spearheaded by Chairman Brian Foote, was ultimately successful.
Duke said the purpose of the meeting is to ask Bernhardt why the Sherman Marsh Wetland Bank project is of such importance to the DOT.
“We would love for them to back down from these plans, that would be the ultimate goal, but assuming that doesn’t happen, we want to better understand why the DOT needs to establish this new precedent in using eminent domain to acquire properties to be banked,” Duke said.
DOT Project Manager Deane Van Dusen will join Bernhardt at the meeting.
Since the meeting in August, the DOT has been meeting with a few of the property owners to discuss the use of their properties when the easements are in place, including maintaining the height of vegetation on the properties, Van Dusen said.
After the DOT meets with all the property owners, an appraiser will return to the properties for a second time, Van Dusen said. A timeline for this process has not been determined.
The department hopes to use at least some of the credits from the Sherman Marsh bank for the I-395/Route 9 connector project, a proposed two-lane road from Brewer to Eddington meant to reduce heavy truck traffic and improve safety on Routes 46 and 1A. In addition, the connector would create a more direct link from the U.S. highway system to Canada.
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will determine if the DOT can use the Sherman Marsh credits for the connector project, Van Dusen said.
“We certainly will try to use the credits on that project, but it is ultimately up to the regulatory agencies to decide,” Van Dusen said.