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Maine's highest court upholds lease for CMP corridor on state land

In this April 26, 2021 file photo, workers for Northern Clearing pound stakes to mark land on an existing Central Maine Power power line corridor that has been recently widened to make way for new utility poles, near Bingham, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
In this April 26, 2021 file photo, workers for Northern Clearing pound stakes to mark land on an existing Central Maine Power power line corridor that has been recently widened to make way for new utility poles, near Bingham, Maine.

Maine's highest court has sided with the state and Central Maine Power over a lease needed to construct a controversial transmission line through western Maine.

In a ruling Tuesday morning, Maine's Supreme Judicial Court said that the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands "acted within its constitutional and statutory authority" when granting CMP a lease through state-owned lands in 2020.

The lease accounts for only one mile of the proposed 145-mile long transmission line that would allow Hydro-Quebec to connect into New England's electricity grid. But the lease is critical to the project moving forward, although construction cannot resume until another pending court case is resolved.

Corridor opponents had argued that the bureau had failed to follow the proper procedure to determine whether the lease would "substantially alter" the public reserved lands in western Maine. A lower court agreed last year, raising questions about whether CMP and its partners on the New England Clean Energy Connect project had access to the entire length of the corridor.

The Law Court disagreed, however, and said the bureau followed the necessary procedures. Furthermore, the court pointed out that the Johnson Mountain and West Forks Plantation public reserved lands are already managed for multiple uses, including timber harvesting, outdoor recreation and an existing transmission line.

“Given the uses, physical characteristics, and essential purposes of the Johnson Mountain and West Forks Plantation tracts, we see no reasonable basis for deciding that a second utility transmission line occupying 2.6% of the combined tracts could significantly alter the physical characteristics of so much of the remaining 97.4% that the multiple-use purposes for which the tracts are held would be frustrated,” the court ruled.

Scott Mahoney, general counsel for CMP parent company Avangrid, called the decision “yet another step in the right direction for Maine’s renewable energy future.”

“The serious need for the NECEC project to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, combat climate change, and lower energy prices remains unchanged,” Mahoney said in a statement. “For the past three years, despite being funded by fossil fuel opponents, every regulatory body at the local, state and federal level has thoroughly reviewed the New England Clean Energy Connect and all agree the NECEC is beneficial for Mainers. We are pleased with today’s ruling and look forward to determining our next steps for this critical project."

But Sen. Rick Bennett, an Oxford Republican who was one of the plaintiffs in the case against CMP, said he was “appalled at this court’s action.” Bennett helped to craft the 1993 constitutional amendment that required a two-thirds vote from both chambers of the Legislature for any uses that “substantially altered” state-owned lands.

“This ruling is an insult to the 243,000 Mainers who spoke loudly to protect our public lands,” Bennett said in a statement. “And it is a slap in the face to the Maine Legislature that just last year voted 26-5 in the Senate and 66-52 in the House to assert its right and responsibility under the Constitution to determine this matter. The job of the Supreme Court is to serve the people of Maine and to protect our Constitution. With this ruling, they have instead sucker-punched the people of Maine and subverted our Constitution. Most tragically, they have done so to benefit foreign corporations and illicit transactions that were intentionally hidden from public scrutiny."

NECEC had already cut 124 miles along the corridor path and spent nearly $450 million on the project before voters approved Question 1 on the Nov. 2021 ballot to block the corridor. That referendum would have retroactively required two-thirds approval from both chambers of the Legislature for the lease through the Johnson Mountain and West Forks Plantation public reserved lands.

But the high court ruled earlier this year that the referendum was likely unconstitutional and ordered a lower court to more thoroughly explore the question of whether the developers had achieved “vested rights” through the work done on the corridor prior to the referendum. Tuesday’s ruling is another victory for CMP and its partners to build a project that is key to Massachusetts’ plan to purchase more renewable energy as part of the state’s climate action plan.

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