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Maine Lawmakers Question Legality Of 2014 CMP Lease Of State Lands For Transmission Corridor

Robert F. Bukaty
AP File
This Tuesday, May 28, 2019 photo shows the view of Attean Pond from a roadside rest area in Jackman, Maine. Central Maine Power's controversial hydropower transmission corridor would in the vicinity of this view.

A legislative committee is questioning the legality of a lease for state lands that Central Maine Power needs for its proposed transmission corridor through Western Maine. Lawmakers say the lease requires approval from two-thirds of the Legislature.

Members of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee say that a lease between CMP and the Bureau of Parks and Lands for a mile-long parcel of state land that was signed in 2014 should be canceled.

They cite a statute requiring that state lands can't be conveyed for a transmission project unless it has received a permit from the state's Public Utilities Commission — a permit CMP did not win until 2019.

And BPL planner David Rodrigues said when he was working on the lease back in 2014, he had no idea the parcel was destined to be a major transmission corridor — and didn't consult the relevant statute.

"To me, when I was working on it, I believed that it was for renewable energy and possibly windmills to be built in that region,” Rodrigues said. “I knew nothing about any other reason for the corridor."

And BPL's new Director, Andrew Cutko, told the Committee that had he been involved in the lease at the time and known CMP's actual plans for the parcel, he would have waited for Public Utilities Commission action before allowing the lease to move forward.

"Now that I am aware of the utilities requirement I would certainly want to follow the law and get that secured prior," Cutko said.

The Committee voted unanimously to support a resolve stating that the lease should be voided, and if it is renegotiated should then require approval by two-thirds of the legislature. That's under a provision in the state constitution requiring such a vote when a public parcel would be "substantially altered" via a lease.

"It's tough to know that these decisions were made without much information about what the project was," said Representative Maggie O'Neill, a Saco Democrat. "This is public land. It belongs to the people of Maine and it's really important that we are thoughtful, and our government goes through this process when we make these kinds of choices, and the public knows, and has the opportunity to weigh in."

But Tony Buxton, a lawyer for the Industrial Energy Consumers Group, which supports the project, said the Committee is being driven by fossil fuel interests that would lose business if CMP is successful in its effort to sluice electricity from Canadian dams into the regional grid. He said that if opponents had a legitimate problem with the lease, they could challenge it in court.

"But for some reason, the opponents have chosen not to do that, but are challenging it politically, and, as we testified before the Committee, that's not an appropriate process," he said.

In a written statement, a CMP spokesperson said the company is confident that the lease was entered legally, and that it includes a requirement that all relevant permits be secured before construction can begin.

It could be several weeks before the full Legislature considers the Committee's proposal.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.