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Skeptical Landowners Grill Cianbro CEO on East-West Highway Plans
04/03/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

The state's decision to back away from any official involvement in a proposal to build an east-west highway in Maine has not deterred the private interests that are still backing the project. Cianbro, the Pittsfield-based construction firm, wants to build a 220-mile, privately-funded roadway from Calais to Coburn Gore by 2023. Cianbro CEO Peter Vigue has been trynig to sell the idea to skeptical residents in counties and towns that would likely end up in the path of the highway. Jay Field was at a public forum of the Penobscot County Commissioners in Bangor Tuesday, where Vigue made his latest pitch.

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Vigue typically begins his east-west highway presentations with a 20-minute power point. He argues that the project would create jobs in economically-depressed areas, and that the roadway itself will make Maine a more viable trading partner with Canada and other nations by linking the Port of Eastport with the highway system in Quebec that leads to the upper Midwest.

After making the case for what that would do, he runs through a list of what it would not do. "We will not cut access to existing roadways. When we go through a community, we will not divide the community," he said. "We will not utilize eminent domain for land acquisition - we will not use eminent domain."

But Vigue's assurances don't seem to allay the fears of some who turned out to testify.

"Garland is a small, rural agricultural town and we like it that way," said resident Terry Crouch. Crouch says a highway would change the character of the community forever. "We have pristine natural resources, farms, gardens, woodlots, gravel beds and fresh water. We do not want to see our natural resources exploited or destroyed."

"Where you get your information, I don't know. We're not going to destroy the town of Garland," Vigue said.

If Garland doesn't want the highway, Vigue told Crouch, it won't go there. But that assurance didn't seem to convince another local resident, who read from a prepared statement.

"I'm Jim Thomas. I represent Thomas Farms of Garland Incorporated, which is a dairy farm in Garland. We milk 465 cows. The proposed east-west highway route goes through Garland. If so, it would probably take 30 acres of our field and severely restrict access to 70 more acres. With the economic pressures facing dairy farmers now, it's questionable if our farm would survive."

Vigue stood a few feet from Thomas, looked him in the eye and repeated his spromise to spare the town of Garland, if that's the wish of the people.

"We're not going to take your property. I assure you of that. I'll promise you that," Vigue insisted. "And we have no right of eminent domain. At all. The gentleman raised the point about not going through Garland. I got the message."

Instead of eminent domain, Vigue says Cianbro will try to buy or lease whatever property it needs from local landowners. The east-west highway would run from Calais to Coburn Gore. But exactly where it will go is anybody's guess.

"You don't have to disclose the route until it's a done deal. And that's where most of the concern comes," said Penobscot County Commissioner Peter Baldacci. Baldacci said if it were a public project, the state would have to lay out the route early in the process and hold public hearings.

"And then they could modify it after the hearings," Baldacci said. "That process is not going to occur here. So how do you address those concerns about this process?"

Mapping the route, Vigue answered, is a complicated problem, one his team hasn't solved yet, as he's tried to explain to concerned landowners.

"I get a phone call from a property owner who's been told we're going to take their land. When the gentleman asks me, 'Are we going through Dover Foxcroft?' I bluntly said, 'Absolutely not.' We're not going near Peaks Kenny. And we're going somewhere south of Dover, not yet totally defined," Vigue said.

Vigue has said that Cianbro hopes to release a proposed route by the end of this year.


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