PORTLAND, Maine — A judge’s ruling will trigger a review of the state’s leases of a small section of land that’s part of a proposed 145-mile power line aimed at bringing Canadian hydropower to the New England grid.
Justice Michaela Murphy ruled Wednesday that the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands didn’t have the authority to lease a 1-mile section to the New England Clean Energy Connect without first determining whether the two leases would substantially alter the land. The rest of the corridor is owned by Central Maine Power, which is behind the project.
Murphy’s ruling requires a formal assessment of the project’s impact on the land, as required by the Maine Constitution. A finding of significant alterations would trigger a legislative review and a two-thirds majority approval to proceed.
“If (the agency) determines that a proposed use of public lands results in ‘substantial alteration,’ the legislative branch must be given the final say on the issue,” the justice wrote.
The president of NECEC Transmission, the project’s developer, said electrical transmission infrastructure has existed on the land for five decades.
“The land management plan adopted by the Bureau of Parks and Lands with respect to this region, following a transparent process including public notice and comment, appropriately recognizes that the use of the leased land includes electric transmission line infrastructure,” Thorn Dickinson said.
Wednesday’s ruling came in a civil action against Andy Cutko, director of the Maine Bureau of Public Lands. The bureau granted a 25-year lease that was later renegotiated to lift the annual payments from $5,000 to $65,000.
On Thursday, the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry held a hearing on a bill to require legislative approval for certain leases on public land.
“These lands are a jewel in our state crown. We, the Legislature, have a responsibility to protect them,” said Sen. Russell Black of Wilton, who brought the civil action against Bureau of Parks and Land.
The goal of the $1 billion project is to bring 1,200 megawatts of hydropower to the New England grid. Much of the project calls for widening existing corridors, but a new swath would be cut through 53 miles of remote woods in western Maine.
Supporters say the project would reduce carbon pollution and lower utility prices across the region. Opponents say the benefits are overstated and that the project would permanently change the character of the woods.