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Conservative activists object to Route 1 corridor plan for Mid-Coast Maine

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Conservative activists object to Route 1 corridor plan for Mid-Coast Maine

ROCKLAND — At the November meeting of the Gateway 1 Implementation Steering Committee, a man no one on the committee had ever seen before got up to speak.

Ted Cowan was clean-shaven and dressed in khakis and a collared shirt. He spoke forcefully, staring down committee members and reading a prepared speech.

"I'm here because I'm just learning about the Gateway 1 project, and I'm not very happy," he said, looking up at the 15 or so committee members seated in the center of the room.

"How many of you on the panel here are familiar with Agenda 21?" he asked.

No one raised their hands.

Cowan went on to accuse the Gateway 1 project of being influenced by a United Nations sustainable development initiative that was presented at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Brazil in 1992.

The accusation came as a surprise to the committee members, who say that Gateway 1 is as grassroots and local as a transportation project can be.

The project is a collaboration between 20 Mid-Coast towns stretching from Brunswick to Stockton Springs, the Maine Department of Transportation and the State Planning Office. Its goal is to preserve the rural character of Route 1 by preventing traffic-snarling sprawl along the roadway, while also creating new jobs, affordable housing and public transit options.

But Cowan thought there was more to the project than meets the eye. He told the committee that "beneath a facade of laudable objectives ... you are in the process of implementing rather radical, unpopular, socialist central-planning directives."

Cowan and four other men who voiced similar positions that night, all residents of Mid-Coast Maine, are part of a national wave of conservative Americans concerned that sustainable development is a threat to national sovereignty, private property rights, and personal liberty. A November article in the magazine Mother Jones highlighted nearly identical concerns about planning projects around the country, from light rail and road improvements in Florida to a bike-sharing program in Colorado.

In Maine, Gateway 1 has come under attack both because of its goals and its structure.

Critics object to the plan's recommendation that Mid-Coast towns adjust their zoning to concentrate development in more urban areas, thereby creating "core growth areas."

But what irks them even more is the recommendation to discourage development in rural areas along Route 1 – essentially telling property owners how they can and cannot use their land.

"Gateway 1 is more land control, more property rights taken away," said Wayne Leach, a Warren resident who spoke at the November meeting of the Gateway 1 Implementation Steering Committee.

"I don't mind them building a road or widening out a little bit, but when they start restricting zoning laws," he said, "I feel like I should be able to do what I want on my property."

Opponents to Gateway 1 also criticize the regional nature of the project, which they see as taking power away from local communities and transferring it to a group made up of unelected town and state officials.

"It's removing power at the local level and moving it up a step," said Nobleboro resident Eden Spear, who attended the January committee meeting.

Spear said she is concerned that the committee representative from Nobleboro, who was appointed by the town's Board of Selectmen, doesn't accurately represent the views of town residents. Nor does she think the Gateway 1 Implementation Steering Committee itself is a fair representation of Mainers. 

"It seems to me the steering committee is made up of planners ... and they're mostly very green people," she said.

Spear also questioned whether the Gateway 1 committee members have done enough to educate the public about the plan or to listen to residents' concerns.

"It's being presented as all positive," she said of how the plan is portrayed by committee members at public workshops, adding that the only negatives suggested are the consequences of not joining.

But many of the town and state representatives involved in the Gateway 1 process don't see any downside to their plan.

"If there are negatives, I haven't seen them," said Sara Bradford, a representative from Stockton Springs and vice chairwoman of the Gateway 1 Implementation Steering Committee.

Her optimism was echoed by Camden representative and steering committee Chairman Don White.

"All the program's positives outweigh the negatives," White said, adding that critics "misinterpret what we're about. ... All we're doing is saying if we work together, then we have a better opportunity to continue our growth and maintain our rural character."

He said the structure of Gateway 1 is much more inclusive and accountable to local residents than transportation projects of the past, which he described as much more top-down.

Participation in Gateway 1 is voluntary, and five towns – Woolwich, Wiscasset, Northport, Warren and Searsport – have withdrawn. Even towns that choose to sign onto the project must have their town councilors or selectmen approve the plan, or let residents vote on it during a town meeting.

Implementation of any of the plan's recommendations, including creating core growth areas, restricting new access points to Route 1, and preserving rural land, is also voluntary, and must be approved by each town's local government.

But Eden Spear is skeptical.

"They say it's voluntary, but I'm not sure how voluntary it is if they make incentives to do what they want and not what you want," she said.

While Spear said she has read the Gateway 1 Action Plan cover to cover and has significant objections, one thing she's not concerned about is whether the plan is part of a United Nations conspiracy.

"I live in Maine, I'm concerned about local issues," she said. "I've got enough on my plate."

But other Gateway 1 critics worry that the project is an off-shoot of UN Agenda 21.

"These two dangers to your inherent private property rights are similar, with 'feel-good' intentions," Wayne Leach wrote in December on a forum at TheMaineTeaParty.com. Leach warned that if coastal towns sign on to Gateway 1, the door will be open for attacks on Mainers' constitutional rights by liberals and those who support Agenda 21.

When asked for evidence of the connection between Gateway 1 and Agenda 21, Leach implicated a Brunswick-based consulting firm called Good Group Decisions that has been working with the Maine Department of Transportation on the Mid-Coast project.

Because the firm is part of the International Association of Facilitators, Leach said the company "is linked to international policy that comes straight from the UN, from Agenda 21."

Even though the Gateway 1 Steering Committee members had never heard of the Agenda 21, Leach said it was the "facilitator's job to steer them in that direction."

Similar logic is proposed by Jarrod LeBlanc, of the conservative online news blog Maine Web News.

In a video called "Mainers Oppose Agenda 21 and Gateway 1 Corridor Action Plan," LeBlanc notes how many times the word "world" is used in the text of the Gateway 1 plan.

"For something that is proposed as an organic reaction to a local problem, there is a lot of focus on world implications. No wonder the objectors feel uneasy about this," he said in the video.

But in other videos about Gateway 1 that were posted by Maine Web News, Dr. Michael Coffman, a former forestry professor at Michigan Technological University, doubted the connection between the two projects.

"There is some truth in there, but not a whole lot of truth," said Coffman, who holds a Ph.D in Forestry and is the founder of Bangor-based Environmental Perspectives, an educational and research organization that informs citizens about the dangers of the environmental movement.

"And I'll be honest with you, of all of these kinds of activities I've seen across the country ... I'll have to congratulate Maine for trying to protect the rights of the citizens more than almost any other state I've ever looked at," Coffman said in the video, which was filmed in Waldoboro at the December 2010 meeting of the Constitutionalists of Maine.

Coffman was particularly impressed by the transfer of development rights, whereby landowners outside the core growth areas would be compensated for giving up their rights to develop their property.

But he still believes the Gateway 1 plan is fundamentally flawed because it prevents rural landowners from developing their land how they want to, and takes power away from local residents – objections raised by most other Gateway 1 opponents.

But unlike some Gateway 1 critics, Coffman worried that trying to link Agenda 21 to the project could cause more harm than good.

"What concerns me is making those statements without the supporting evidence," he said. "It makes people think we're out there in the nether lands and don't know what we're talking about."

And Coffman has a reason to be concerned. Almost all of the Gateway 1 Implementation Steering Committee members interviewed seemed not to take the Gateway 1 critics seriously because of the nature of their arguments.

"The one thing I haven't seen from any of these groups is something specific," said White, the committee  chairman. "I frankly don't know who they are and what they represent and have never bothered to check."

Gateway 1 critic Ted Cowan said this attitude frustrates him.

"I've been to some of the meetings and have expressed these concerns, and we've been met with extreme ridicule," he said.

Now he wants to hold a public hearing where critics can ask Gateway 1 committee members questions, not just state their positions and sit down.

"They're not allowing the people a chance to come ask them questions directly," he said.

But addressing the alleged Agenda 21-Gateway 1 connection does not seem to be in the cards. Bradford, the vice chairwoman, said the committee's outreach and education is not "channelled specifically towards that."

The committee is working to better inform local residents who are concerned about the impact of the project on private property rights through a pamphlet of frequently asked questions and more public workshops.

For Gateway 1 Project Administrator Stacy Benjamin, the recent objections to the project have a silver lining.

"If this concern about the relationship between Gateway 1 and Agenda 21 brings people out, that's great," she said. "It's gotten more people interested in Gateway 1, and that's a good thing."

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or eguerin@theforecaster.net