A new court ruling in favor of corridor opponents may give the Legislature another crack at the project. Central Maine Power and the administration of Gov. Janet Mills took a loss in court on Wednesday. Superior Court judge Michaela Murphyruled the state needs to further analyze effects of the lease of roughly 33 state-owned acres in Somerset County that the utility will be using to build its $1 billion hydropower corridor from the Quebec border to Lewiston.
It is one of the most important developments in the long-running corridor saga, which is being fought on political, legislative and judicial fronts. Maine could vote in November on an anti-corridor referendum with myriad bills in the Legislature on the topic and the battle over the lease is just one of a few active lawsuits over the controversial project.
The lawsuit centers on a simple question: Does the lease “substantially alter” public land? It has its roots in a constitutional amendment passed by Maine voters in 1993. Any major changes are supposed to be approved with a two-thirds vote in each legislative chamber.
Murphy’s ruling did not say whether the CMP lease substantially alters the land. But she said the state must issue a determination on that question before proceeding with a lease. The state did not do it when it inked the first lease with CMP and revised it afterward under Mills, a Democrat and the key political backer of the corridor project.
The result may not be a fatal blow, but it could gum up the works for CMP. The state could issue a determination that the transmission line does not equate to a major alteration of the property. If it rules the other way, the Legislature would need to approve the lease with a two-thirds vote. All of it could likely get challenged by opponents in court.
It looks as if two-thirds support would be nearly impossible for CMP to muster in the Legislature now. Mills has relied on a bipartisan coalition to kill anti-corridor bills in the past, but a new crop of lawmakers is more anti-corridor. Those forces formed a narrow majority in 2019. In a timing quirk, a legislative panel will hold a Thursday hearing on a bill from Sen. Russell Black, R-Wilton, that would explicitly expand legislative lease authority to include transmission lines.
Even if the Legislature votes down the lease, CMP has other options. They could simply buy more land around the state’s swath and bypass the issue. This would add money and time to the project, but it may not sink it with much incentive to continue construction.