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CMP corridor supporters, opponents argue whether ‘vested rights’ should trump will of Maine voters

Brian Bechard
Maine Public

Maine’s business court heard arguments Wednesday over whether the developers of a controversial electricity corridor through Western Maine should be able to resume construction or are bound by last month’s vote on Question 1.

Central Maine Power and it’s partners on the New England Clean Energy Connect had already completed more than 40 percent of the $1 billion project by the time they agreed to stop work on November 19. That was more than two weeks after Maine voters had the ballot question that sought to stop the corridor project in its tracks.

Now, the corridor’s developers are arguing all of that work – and the $450 million spent to accomplish it – means they should be allowed to complete the project.

CMP and allies told District Court Judge Michael Duddy that they have “vested rights” under Maine’s Constitution and law to push ahead with construction in spite of Question 1.

Starting and stopping the project is harmful to the contractors, subcontractors and other companies involved in construction, said Philip Coffin, an attorney for Cianbro, one of the major contractors on the project.

“Construction projects of this size and magnitude cannot be turned on and turned off like a light switch,” Coffin said. “They take months and years of planning and organization to get started and put boots on the ground. The men and women working on this project cannot be expected to sit around and wait months for the legal issues to be resolved in this case.”

Supporters also contend blocking the project will undermine progress on addressing climate change for the entire New England region. And attorneys for business groups that support the project, such as Gerald Petruccelli representing the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, warned that allowing voters to stop the project now would have a chilling effect on future development in Maine.

“If in Maine, the permits are worth nothing until every last potential, 5-citizen circulated petition has been exhausted, the rational investor will not come here,” Petruccelli said. “And the damage to Maine’s economy is incalculably huge.”

But corridor opponents sought to dismantle the “vested rights” arguments by pointing out that CMP knew the risks long before construction began. The company disclosed those risks in routine financial filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as during investor calls.

And Jonathan Bolton, an assistant attorney general representing the state in the case, pointed out that New England Clean Energy Connect was spending big to prevent opponents from even getting a question onto last November’s ballot.

“They were aware that there was a serious threat to the corridor, I think, well before they started construction,” Bolton said.

A coalition of grassroots groups and environmental organizations led the campaign to pass Question 1, funded largely by other energy companies who stand to lose money if the corridor is built. CMP, Hydro-Quebec and its allies, in turn, spent tens of millions of dollars to oppose Question 1.

After Election Day, opponents waged an intense pressure campaign on the state to order work on the corridor to stop. The companies eventually did after Gov. Janet Mills, a corridor supporter, wrote that continued work on the project was “disrespectful to Maine people.”

James Kilbreth, an attorney for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said the problem that the developers agreed to a schedule that he said was “grossly unrealistic.” And the result could be a transmission line to nowhere.

“And essentially they are arguing that the deal that they made, that has to trump the will of the Maine voters. That is just an untenable proposition,” Kilbreth said.

The law that resulted from Question 1 is slated to take effect on Sunday. The judge in the case, Michael Duddy, said he expects to make a decision on the “vested rights” issue by Thursday or Friday.