HARPSWELL (AP) – Harpswell residents soundly rejected a referendum Tuesday that would have allowed a $350 million liquefied natural gas terminal to be built in town.

The referendum ends months of emotional debate that sharply divided the town.

Voters rejected four questions on Tuesday’s ballot – all of them roughly 55-to-45 percent – that had to pass for the project to go forward.

“It’s a great night in Harpswell,” said Chris Duval, an organizer of the FairPlay for Harpswell opposition group.

Emotional debate leading up to the vote pitted the issue of economic development that could have reduced the tax burden for residents versus worries that the massive development would spoil the town’s character.

The issue proved to be so divisive that deputies from the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department were on hand Tuesday to make sure there were no disturbances. The deputies were later reinforced by state troopers.

Fairwinds, a venture of energy giants TransCanada and ConocoPhillips, wanted to lease a former Navy fuel depot where it would build the terminal.

Harpswell residents would have benefited from more than $8 million a year in lease fees and property taxes. Supporters, including Gov. John Baldacci, said the project would benefit the entire state, as well.

Fairwinds said it would employ 900 workers during a three-year construction phase. Once the terminal opens in 2009, the facility would have about 50 full-time employees, company officials said.

Fairwinds spokesman Peter Micciche said he was proud of the project’s supporters and handed it to opponents for running a strong campaign. The company planned to announce its future plans at a news conference Wednesday.

“I think (opponents) should be proud of standding up for what they believe in,” he said.

Baldacci spokesman Lee Umphrey said the governor was disappointed by the vote. “But it won’t deter efforts to create new jobs,” he said.

Critics included fishermen who feared that the project could destroy their gear and harm lobster and fishing grounds. Duval said resistance to the plan strengthened as lobstermen went door-to-door and spoke publicly about their opposition.

In the end, he said, Fairwinds “just ran up against a community that was too dedicated to let this pass.”

With the plan rejected in Harpswell, attention is likely to shift to Sears Island in Searsport.

State officials announced in November that an unnamed company was interested in exploring the possibility of building an LNG terminal on Sears Island, which for years was at the center of a bitter fight over whether to build a cargo port.

Umphrey said negotiations between the company and the state, which owns the island, could pick up now that Harpswell voters have turned down the plan there.

“With this vote in Harpswell, there will be more focus on Sears Island,” Umphrey said.

Midcoast residents have organized a group to oppose any proposal that might surface. Duval said he has leftover bumper stickers that say “LNG can’t buy ME” that he will gladly donate to groups opposing an LNG project on Sears Island.

Voting was going smoothly at the Harpswell Island School until an unidentified man called in a bomb threat in an attempt to disrupt the voting, said Cumberland County Sheriff Mark Dion.

Bomb sniffing dogs searched the school and the town hall and found nothing, Dion said. Deputies in a boat also checked out a bridge where bombs were said to have been planted.

Afterward, voters had to pass through metal detectors, and packages sent to the school were turned away.

“It’s unconscionable that someone would act to disrupt the election,” Dion said. “We’re going to expend whatever energy we have to find this person. It’s a crime against the community in the truest sense of the word.”

Dion said the bomb threat was traced to a pay phone at a Wal-Mart. The pay phone was removed for forensic examination, he said.

The project envisioned LNG tanker ships arriving every four to nine days at a new dock and jetty extending 800 feet into the bay. The LNG would be offloaded into two containment tanks measuring 240 feet in diameter and 120 feet tall.

From there, the LNG, which is cooled to minus 259 degrees, would be warmed and transferred to a natural gas pipeline west of Portland.

There are currently about 40 LNG terminals worldwide; seven other LNG projects are in the works along the East Coast.

AP-ES-03-09-04 2336EST

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