KITTERY — York residents continued their decade-long battle against a plan to relocate the York toll plaza on Monday, turning out in force to oppose a proposal they say will damage the environment and negatively affect nearby residents.

Close to 200 people filled the Kittery Community Center’s Star Theater during a Maine Department of Environmental Protection hearing on whether the proposal to build a new $40 million toll plaza meets requirements for a permit under the Natural Resources Protection Act. A daytime hearing included testimony from the Maine Turnpike Authority, the town of York and the opposition group Think Again – Stop the York Toll Plaza Relocation.

Nearly all of the 26 people who testified during the two-hour hearing said they oppose the project because it uses outdated technology, would negatively impact land in the area, and increase air, noise and light pollution near the plaza. They say an all-electronic toll system – where tolls are collected by E-ZPass and by billing drivers whose license plates are scanned – would be a safer and more environmentally friendly option.

“Many of us believe an all-electronic system would be better,” said Robert Palmer, a York selectman who also said the new plaza would hurt residents’ way of life.

But supporters of the plan, including two toll collectors, say the current toll plaza is in a dangerous spot and the new plaza would have a minimal impact on the environment.

“I think most people in York just want to get the toll plaza built,” Peter Mills, executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, said after the hearing.

The turnpike authority wants to build the toll plaza a mile and a half north of the existing one. The proposal calls for a 15-lane plaza with a mix of cash booths and electronic-pay lanes.

Toll operator Craig DeCourt of York Beach speaks in favor of keeping a cash payment system during the Department of Environmental Protection’s a public hearing on a Maine Turnpike Authority proposed project to build an upgraded plaza in York. Staff photo by Derek Davis

The new plaza proposal, at mile 8.8, is the most practical in terms of safety, revenue and reducing traffic on secondary roads, and has the least environmental impact and disruption to nearby residents, turnpike officials say.

The current toll plaza at mile 7.3 has serious safety and operational problems, and building a new one at the same spot isn’t feasible, the authority says. According to its analysis, construction of the new plaza complex would affect 1.5 acres of wetlands and would not harm sensitive vernal pools. There are no impacts to federally listed threatened or endangered species, according to its studies.

The authority will spend $450,000 on environmental mitigation, including a wildlife passage for threatened species on a road in Eliot. Recent studies show there would be little or no harmful air, noise or light impacts on nearby residents.

Last week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a federal permit known as the Maine General Permit after determining the project “will have only minimal individual or cumulative environmental impacts.”

“Furthermore, we have determined that the proposed replacement facility represents the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative,” Frank Del Guidice, chief of the army corps permits and enforcement branch, wrote in a letter to the Maine Turnpike Authority.

Three legislators who represent York – Sen. Dawn Hill and Reps. Lydia Blume and Patricia Hymanson – all spoke against the proposed project and urged DEP officials to strongly consider the testimony and concerns of residents who have been fighting the relocation of the plaza for close to 10 years.

Hymanson said her constituents do not want a large toll plaza that will impact the environment and that could lead to more accidents than an all-electronic system where traffic does not stop. She said the town will be saddled with the toll plaza when the technology it will use is obsolete in coming years. Blume said all-electronic tolling is more visually appealing and would cut down on the large traffic backups that often greet visitors when they arrive in Maine.

More than 200 people turned out for the DEP’s public hearing in Kittery. York County residents have been battling the proposed toll plaza upgrade for more than 10 years. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Cathy Goodwin of Eliot said she has been a staunch advocate of all-electronic tolling since serving on a turnpike authority advisory committee years ago. She pointed out that it is not uncommon to see traffic at a complete standstill on the turnpike during summer.

“This traffic congestion causes cars to idle for long periods of time as cars inch forward,” she said.

Residents who live near the proposed project area described the wetlands around their homes and their experiences spotting rare plants and a pair of bald eagles while walking in the woods. They testified they worry about runoff from a new access road, pollution from idling cars, noise and lights. They also questioned why the turnpike authority wants to continue collecting cash tolls instead of employing technology now used in Massachusetts and other states.

Sandy Vanesse, a toll collector who lives in York, said there are 50 toll collectors, including 27 full-time employees, who could lose their jobs if the turnpike switched to an all-electronic system.

Craig DeCourt, who also works as a toll collector and lived in York, said people don’t seem worried about traffic idling on Route 1 and said the turnpike authority is “getting the short end of the stick.” He also suggested that not all residents are opposed to the project.

“The vast majority of people, even though you see a crowd here, don’t give a hoot,” he said.

Mills said after the hearing that the turnpike authority needs to continue to collect tolls in York and said 28 or 29 percent of all revenue collected at that toll plaza comes from cash.

Gov. Paul LePage wants to start shutting down the turnpike authority and eliminate all toll facilities on the turnpike except the York toll plaza. His bill to shut down the turnpike authority within the next decade recently was referred to the Legislature’s Transportation Committee.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

ggraham@pressherald.com

Twitter: @grahamgillian