JAY — Even with Gov. Janet Mills throwing her support behind the controversial project this spring, opposition to Central Maine Power’s 145-mile transmission line through Western Maine has continued to gain steam — one town at a time.

This week, the town of Jay was the latest to deal with a citizen petition to force a town vote on the project, and it could eventually join a growing list of towns that have rescinded support.

Ever since the New England Clean Energy Connect project was announced in 2017, proposing to bring hydropower from Quebec to Massachusetts via Maine, it has divided Maine residents over its benefits and potential environmental impact.

As the state permitting process has unfolded, public scrutiny of the $1 billion project has snowballed. In response, many of the towns that once formally supported the project have either rescinded support or have received pressure to do so.

The opposition list includes many of the Western Maine towns that the transmission line is proposed to cross, including Caratunk, West Forks, The Forks, Starks, Embden, Farmington and Wilton. The Franklin County Commission also rescinded support.

Now, more towns in and outside of Franklin County, including Jay, Anson, Durham, Pownal and Greenville, could join those ranks with votes coming in June.

Supporters argue the project will generate economic benefits for the state while supporting clean energy that will cut carbon emissions. Critics doubt the benefits, and worry about the impacts of the project, including a 150-foot-wide clear-cut for 52 miles through the North Woods for new transmission lines that will connect to CMP’s existing corridors.

Despite the recent pushback, CMP officials remain confident the project will eventually receive the permits needed for construction to begin.

‘PEOPLE SHOULD HAVE A VOICE’ 

The process playing out in Jay is representative of the statewide fight over the project, as grass-roots opposition has put increased pressure on local town officials.

Earlier this month, in a tie vote, the Jay Select Board voted to deny a citizen petition requesting a town vote on the corridor. The vote was 2-2, after Selectwoman Judy Diaz was urged to abstain because of her outspoken support for the NECEC. (Diaz recently appeared in a pro-corridor advertisement).

After the residents who circulated the petition pressured the town to reconsider, the Select Board took another vote Thursday. This time it passed 3-1, and a town vote will be held June 24.

Jay Selectman Gary McGrane, who voted both times to accept the petition, said Wednesday that “people have the right to have a voice.”

“When the petition came before us, I thought whether I’m for (NECEC) or against it, the people should have a voice,” he said.

The Jay Select Board last week voted to accept a citizen petition asking for a town-wide vote on the New England Clean Energy Connect transmission line.

Like officials in many towns, McGrane said the Select Board was introduced to the project by a letter from CMP asking for support. He said that at first, he was reeled in by the prospect of financial benefits and new jobs for the region. The Select Board initially issued a letter of support.

“Then, a number of citizens started getting concerned about the environmental impact,” he said, adding that he has since become concerned that the project will not do enough to reduce the state’s carbon footprint.

He said that from talking to local residents, he knows those opposed to the project are hoping their voices, as well as those in surrounding towns, are heard in Augusta.

While the Maine Public Utilities Commission granted the project a key permit in April, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the Land Use Planning Commission and the Army Corps of Engineers are conducting separate reviews.

“If there’s so much public outcry and disturbance about it, maybe they’ll take a less proactive stance and let the people decide,” he said, referring to the regulatory agencies. “There’s very few times in which people have the opportunity to have their opinions heard, and this happens to be one of them.”

Jay Town Manager Shiloh LaFreniere said this week that the Select Board’s initial decision in 2017 to support the project was “based on their desire to stem the staggering tax increase that occurred when (the Verso paper mill) scaled back.”

She said that two years ago, little opposition was heard from Jay residents, but that has changed.

“There has definitely been a shift in regard to the public opinion on this project and we believe the municipalities are actively listening to the concerns of the citizens and weighing those concerns with the potential impacts for all their residents,” she said. “This is an example of our democracy at work.”

POLITICAL FIGHT

Following the Jay Select Board’s vote Thursday, Linda Flagg, a resident opposed to the project who was at the meeting, said, “The power needs to be given back to the people, and our government and selectmen do not speak for all.”

Sandi Howard, director of the group Say NO to NECEC, which she described as a “grass-roots nonprofit,” said she believes the recent wave of municipalities pulling support shows that CMP did not conduct a “true public outreach” for the proposal.

Howard said nearly all of the towns initially supported the plan because project officials began the process by “quietly courting” local select boards. She said that has slowly changed as Mainers have learned more about the potential impacts.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine, the state’s leading environmental voice, has argued that the corridor would cause large-scale damage to Maine’s North Woods, would not reduce carbon pollution and could block local clean-energy projects that would provide “real jobs and benefits” for Mainers.

For residents packing recent town meetings, the rallying cry seems to center on a general distrust of CMP and its promises of tax benefits, combined with concern for Maine’s environment and scenic views that the rural towns rely on.

Howard said residents in places like Durham also “don’t feel the proposed tax benefits are worth property devaluation” caused by the transmission lines.

While the votes from towns along the corridor are symbolic and carry no official weight in the approval process, Howard said they are “starting to be valued a little differently” now that there are multiple bills under consideration in Augusta related to the project.

“As towns vote against the project, we’re seeing that leverage state leaders, too, in the way that they interact with the proposals in Augusta,” she said.

The Maine House of Representatives passed a bill last week that will require a review of the corridor’s greenhouse gas emissions. Other proposals would restrict CMP’s ability to use eminent domain to take land and would delay any permits until after the Legislature adjourns next year.

Thorn Dickinson, vice president of business development for Central Maine Power/Avangrid, said the proposed bills in Augusta are intended to create uncertainty in the ability of the project to move forward.

“These bills are an attempt to slow the progress of the project by opponents of NECEC who have a vested interest in seeing it delayed,” he said last week.

John Carroll, the spokesman for the New England Clean Energy Connect project, pictured this spring at the substation on Larrabee Road in Lewiston. Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover

Asked about the recent decisions from towns along the corridor to rescind support, and what it could mean for the end result, Dickinson pointed to the Maine Public Utilities Commission decision, saying the commission concluded after 18 months of research and testimony “that the NECEC will benefit Maine consumers and the environment.”

“We will make the same case for the project during local permitting, in which each community will be asked to evaluate the project in the context of its own land-use standards,” he said. “We know that this project brings substantial environmental and economic benefits to Maine, and continue to encourage Mainers to think hard about the incredible clean energy as well as economic benefits NECEC will provide.”

Dickinson also responded to criticism of his company’s public outreach for the project. He said that since 2017, CMP has held hundreds of meetings with local and county officials, presentations to community and business groups, public proceedings before three state regulatory agencies, a website, social media, mailings, and radio and television advertisements.

“We will continue all of those efforts throughout permitting and construction, and are scheduling more face-to-face meetings with Mainers to explain why NECEC is so vital to Maine’s future,” he said.

The company has also criticized a larger campaign against the project, known as Stop the Corridor — a coalition that includes ReEnergy, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Maine Renewable Energy Association, Environment Maine and No CMP Corridor — insisting it is anything but grass-roots.

“The benefits the NECEC will deliver for consumers and the environment will come at the expense of the companies that own (electricity) generators all across New England, and they are working hard to stymie progress,” he said.

When Gov. Mills endorsed the corridor after project officials announced a $258 million benefits package negotiated by her administration, Stop the Corridor ran an ad calling it a “backroom deal.

Howard said that while she considers her group part of the larger coalition, she said Say NO to NECEC is all-volunteer and crowd-funded. It began as a group Facebook page, and eventually grew into a much larger effort, with local representatives in many of the towns along the corridor.

LEWISTON STRONGHOLD

Howard said decisions on the other state and federal regulatory agencies are expected this fall. In the meantime, the group is continuing its push in towns affected by the project.

While Durham, in Androscoggin County, is not within the area where the new corridor would be built between the Quebec border and The Forks, it is part of the section due to be widened as part of the project. “No CMP Corridor” signs, now ubiquitous in Western Maine towns, can also be seen along roads and outside businesses here.

The Durham Select Board on Tuesday voted unanimously to accept a citizen petition and to schedule a town vote on the CMP corridor. In addition, the board voted unanimously to send a letter to CMP saying it will rescind the town’s original letter of support for the project. (The town of Jay did not go that far.)

According to the project summary given by the town Select Board, the proposal would affect 4.5 miles of corridor in Durham across the northern part of the town, replacing the 40- to 45-foot-tall poles with 90- to 100-foot poles.

According to Say NO to NECEC, which has an “advocacy chairperson” in Durham, during the April 23 Durham Select Board meeting, Kevin Nadeau, its chairman, said, “We have never voted to support the project,” adding that CMP used the board’s original letter “to infer well beyond its original intent.”

Pownal officials did the same because of concerns over the transmission line upgrades.

Perhaps the most significant of the towns to oppose the project was Gov. Mills’ hometown of Farmington earlier this spring. Residents there voted overwhelmingly in March to oppose the project.

During the meeting, Mills did her best to sway the crowd, arguing that the project would provide $346 million in electricity market benefits in Maine in the first 15 years and would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by about 360 metric tons per year. Locally, she said, it would produce an estimated $436,000 per year in new tax revenue in Farmington, $5 million from CMP for economic development in Franklin County, and $5 million in scholarships for local students.

The vote was 262-102 to oppose.

For now, nearby Lewiston and the municipalities that surround it represent the remaining stronghold of support for the corridor. The city is a key piece of the proposal, where a new converter station to change the direct current from Quebec into alternating current would be built on Merrill Road.

Lewiston Mayor Kristen Cloutier recently appeared in an advertisement for Mainers for Clean Energy Jobs, the campaign launched last year (during a Lewiston event) to support the transmission line.

She said Lewiston’s estimated haul of $6 million or more in annual tax revenue from the project can “really create meaningful change in a community,” and went on say it could lead to paying for economic development projects, new fire substations, roads and riverfront redevelopment.

Tim Lajoie, a former Lewiston city councilor who is running for mayor in November, recently said he opposes the CMP project because it would “benefit wealthy special interests.”

Howard has already jumped to point out Lajoie’s stance on the project to fellow opponents.

“Lajoie’s opposition shows that, like most of the rest of Maine, Lewiston residents and the major party candidates running to represent them aren’t buying CMP’s empty promises,” she wrote in an email to the group.

 

The Jay Select Board in May voted to deny a citizen’s petition to vote on the CMP transmission line project. After pressure to reconsider, the board voted Thursday to allow the petition. A vote will be held June 24. Submitted photo

John Carroll, the spokesman for the New England Clean Energy Connect project, pictured this spring at the substation on Larrabee Road in Lewiston. Thorn Dickinson, vice president of business development for CMP/Avangrid, said this week that energy companies that would be impacted by the new clean energy “are working hard to stymie progress. They have launched an aggressive campaign attacking anyone who supports this project.” Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover


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