AUGUSTA — Members of a legislative committee voted Tuesday to endorse a bill to require the state to cancel and potentially renegotiate a lease on a strip of public land along Central Maine Power’s corridor for a proposed transmission line through Western Maine.

Opponents of the 145-mile-long transmission line are hoping to use the renegotiation requirement as another way to block or impede CMP’s New England Clean Energy Connect project. That’s because the bill would also require any new lease agreement on the 36-acre parcel to be approved by a two-thirds vote in the full Legislature – something that is far from guaranteed, given the statewide controversy over the transmission line proposal.

“To me, it’s huge because now they potentially don’t have a lease for a portion of this corridor,” Tom Saviello, a former state senator from Wilton and a vocal opponent of CMP’s project, said following the 9-0 vote from the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee.

The bill endorsed by the committee on Tuesday would direct the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands to cancel a 2014 lease granting CMP usage of a 300-foot wide corridor through the Johnson Mountain and West Forks Northeast public reserved lands. The bureau would then be authorized – but not required – to renegotiate the lease.

The bill now goes to the full Legislature for consideration. But even if it passes both chambers, the bill would have to get by project supporter Gov. Janet Mills.

A spokesman for CMP’s parent company said there is no reason to revisit the 2014 agreement.

“We believe the lease, which we entered into in good faith in 2014, already complies with Maine law,” Avangrid spokesman Ed Crowder said in a statement. “The lease is conditioned upon the project receiving a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity before construction. We received that certificate in May of 2019.”

The core issue is whether the bureau should have sought legislative approval back in 2014. Project opponents also maintain that the lease should not have been granted to CMP before the company received a “certificate of public convenience and necessity” from the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

The 145-mile corridor allowing Hydro-Quebec to connect to the New England power grid wasn’t even being discussed at the time, at least not publicly. CMP agreed to pay roughly $100 per acre, or $3,600, to lease the land running through public lands that are maintained for wildlife and recreation.

“When I was working on it, I believed that it was for renewable energy and possibly windmills to be built in that region,” said David Rodrigues, director of property management at the Bureau of Parks and Lands. “I knew nothing about any other reason for the corridor. Other people may have, but I didn’t.”

Saviello and the sponsor of L.D. 1893, Republican Sen. Russell Black of Wilton, argue that the Maine Constitution clearly requires the bureau to receive legislative approval for any “significant alterations” to public lands. Construction of a high-voltage transmission line, they said, would result in dramatic, long-term changes to the land.

Rodrigues said by the time the lease reached his desk, any decision about seeking legislative approval would have been made by the bureau director and the commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

Last month, the committee sent a letter to current bureau director Andy Cutko requesting “any materials from January 1, 2013 through January 1, 2016 and after July 1, 2018” pertaining to the decision not to seek legislative approval for the 2014 lease. But Cutko said an “exhaustive” search failed to yield any opinions from the Attorney General’s Office.

Lawmakers expressed frustration Tuesday about the lack of documentation about that decision or the discussions that led up to it.

“This is public land. It belongs to the people of Maine and it is really important that we are thoughtful and that our government goes through this process when we make these kinds of choices, and that the public knows and has an opportunity to weigh in,” said Rep. Margaret O’Neil, D-Saco. “It’s tough to know these decisions were made without much information about what the project was.”

“I strongly believe, and I’ve always believed, in transparency of government, and I find it lacking here,” added Rep. Thomas Skolfield, R-Weld.

Bill supporters also took issue with the $100-per-acre lease payments that the state offered CMP. By comparison, the company agreed to pay the Passamaquoddy Tribe a minimum of $125,000 per acre for potential usage of tribal lands for the corridor.

During a public hearing on the bill last month, a representative for CMP said the 2014 lease was “based on a reasonable market value” that was calculated by a third party for the bureau.

Supporters of the New England Clean Energy Connect project – which was sparked by Massachusetts’ need to purchase renewable energy – will help address climate change by supplying the regional power grid with hydropower.

CMP has already received regulatory approvals from the Public Utilities Commission and the Land Use Planning Commission but is still awaiting decisions from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In addition fighting the transmission line in the Legislature and with regulatory agencies, opponents are hoping to give Maine voters a chance to weigh in on the project via a statewide referendum.

 


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