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CMP Transmission Line Faces New Legal Challenges, Including One Over Public Lands

Robert F. Bukaty
AP Images
In this Tuesday, May 28, 2019 photo a sign in protest of Central Maine Power's controversial hydropower transmission corridor is stretched across a business sign in The Forks, Maine.

There was more legal action Tuesday in the fight over Central Maine Power’s (CMP) proposed powerline through the state's western woods. One well-financed opposition group calledStop the Corridorfiled suit Tuesday in an ongoing dispute over whether it can keep its funding sources secret.

And on a new front, a multi-partisan group of past and present lawmakers, nonprofit groups and individual Mainers is mounting acourt challenge to a lease the state signed with CMP forpublic lands along the route of the controversial project.

At issue is a mile-long section of land, 300-feet wide, in the West Forks area, which the Bureau of Public Lands (BPL) leased to CMP back in 2014.

The filers say that the Bureau failed to get a two-thirds vote of the state Legislature, which the state Constitution requires for leases that would "reduce" or "substantially alter" the character of public reserve lands.

"I find it offensive that the Bureau of Public lands did not fulfill the Constitutional mandate."

Credit Beth J. Harpaz / AP File
AP File
Orange boats fill the Kennebec River in this file photo from 2006, in The Forks, Maine.

Former-state Senate President and Maine Republican Party Chair Rick Bennett sat on the conference committee that in 1993 wrote the amendment requiring a two-thirds legislative vote on public land leases — a measure that was subsequently ratified by an overwhelming statewide vote. Bennett said the Bureau Of Public Lands has routinely sought the two-thirds vote for much more minor projects, including transmission lines.

“This one is life-changing for a lot of Maine people. And I believe it will be negatively affecting western Maine for generations if it is allowed to go forward.”

The suit includes several acting lawmakers — Republican, Democrat and independent — who argue they are being deprived of their constitutional right to vote on the lease. The state's largest environmental advocacy group, the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM), is on board as well.

In addition to bypassing the legislature, they argue that the Bureau went beyond its power because the law requires that power line owners first must secure a project permit from the state's Public Utilities Commission before leasing state lands.

"Maine law says you can't lease public land for a transmission project unless you get the certification, or the certificate of public convenience and need first. CMP got that certificate four years later," said Nick Bennet, the staff scientist for the NRCM, which is seeking to have the lease overturned.

"And in the meantime, until the lawsuit is decided, CMP should not be able to start it's project, because they don't have right, title and interest, meaning they don't have proper ownership or deeds over all the land in their project, and that is a requirement of the site law."

In February, a legislative committee took testimony that goes to some of the issues raised by the suit.

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 he 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 recently-appointed 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.

CMP officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

And in other legal action around the CMP project, there will be oral arguments before a Cumberland County Superior Court judge over the constitutionality of a proposed ballot itemthat asks voters statewide whether the project should be killed.

Originally published 4:35 p.m. June 23, 2020.

Updated 11:01 a.m. Wednesday, June 24, 2020.

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.