Leases for state reserve lands along the route for Central Maine Power’s controversial power line are under fire in the Legislature and in the courts — putting both CMP and the administration of Gov. Janet Mills on the defensive.
On Wednesday, a Superior Court judge rejected arguments by the state and CMP that the leases for remote Kennebec Valley lands were properly handled. Instead, Justice Michaela Murphy found that the Bureau of Parks and Lands failed to determine whether the placement of electricity lines there would “substantially alter” the uses of the parcels.
And if the use would alter the lands, she ruled, an amendment to the state Constitution voters approved in 1993 requires that the leases must be subject to approval by a two-thirds vote in the Legislature.
On Thursday, action moved to a legislative committee hearing.
“I’m speaking on behalf of the department in opposition to LD 471,” said Andy Cutko, who directs the Bureau of Parks and Lands.
Cutko defended the leases to lawmakers who are considering a bill to explicitly require legislative approval for utility leases — including, retroactively, the CMP leases.
Cutko says his agency properly considered project impacts in 2014, when the leases were first signed during the LePage administration, and when they were revised last June under Gov. Mills.
“Fundamentally, familiarity with these kinds of nuances and the technical expertise makes our staff best qualified to weigh these issues and make such determinations according to state statute and rules,” he says.
Cutko acknowledged that the agency did not make a written finding about project impacts until last September — months after he signed a revised lease. But he suggested that staff did make such a finding, verbally, earlier, and he blamed the pandemic’s demands on the agency for delays in creating a written finding.
That drew a rebuke from state Sen. Rick Bennett, an Oxford Republican who helped write the constitutional language voters passed in 1993.
“Director Cutko has just confirmed its need. He essentially said to you, ‘Trust us, we the department will determine without documentation, when we will follow the constitution or not.’ And then of course he refuses to answer the very legitimate questions of this committee to avoid accountability. It’s shameful and it’s arrogant,” he said.
While lawmakers continue to work on the bill, action next week moves back to Superior Court — Justice Murphy has called a conference among parties to the case to consider next steps.