The state’s Bureau of Parks and Lands has signed a revised deal with Central Maine Power to lease a public parcel for the utility’s controversial power line through western Maine. It makes some key changes, but opponents say under the state constitution, the lease still needs to be approved by a two-thirds majority of the Legislature.
The lease is for a 300-foot-wide, mile-long parcel that CMP wants for its proposed transmission corridor. The original 2014 lease was challenged on constitutional and other grounds in the Legislature this year and in a lawsuit filed by opponents last week.
On the same day that suit was filed, the director of the state’s Bureau of Parks and Lands, Andrew Cutko, quietly signed a revised version of the lease.
“Well I think it stinks to high heaven,” says Rick Bennett, one of several past and present lawmakers who signed onto the recent lawsuit challenging the lease.
Back in the 1990s, Bennett helped write an amendment to the state constitution requiring a two-thirds vote of the Legislature for the lease of any public lands that would be “substantially altered.”
“The fact that the bureau is attempting to renegotiate a lease they know is unconstitutional makes a mockery of the bureau as stewards of our public lands,” he says.
The revised lease obtained by Maine Public does not directly address the issue of a two-thirds legislative vote. But it does hike CMP’s annual lease payments from less than $5,000 up to $65,000, with CMP agreeing to go higher if a third-party appraiser says that’s fair.
And the revised lease also now includes reference to a permit CMP only recently secured for the transmission project from the Maine Public Utilities Commission — a permit state statute indicates should have been in place before the lease was signed in the first place.
“So Central Maine Power has said again and again throughout a two-year hearing process that their lease was legal. They were lying,” says Nick Bennett, staff scientist at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, also a party to the recent lawsuit. “They were lying and you can tell they’re lying because otherwise they wouldn’t have to negotiate a new lease at the last second.”
CMP declined a request for an interview, but issued a statement confirming the new lease, and referred questions about a two-thirds legislative vote to the state. Cutko and other state officials did not answer that question or accept interview requests. In a statement, a bureau spokesperson says it inherited an undervalued lease agreement from the LePage administration and amended it to better line up with fair market value.