This May 28, 2019, photo shows the view of Attean Pond from a roadside rest area in Jackman. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

After a contentious year of debates over its merits and potential environmental impact, Central Maine Power’s proposed $1 billion hydropower project looks set to gain another key regulatory approval, possibly as early as January.

On Monday, staff of the state’s Land Use Planning Commission released a 34-page draft recommendation and a memo to commissioners and intervening parties that proposed approving CMP’s use of land for its controversial New England Clean Energy Connect project, which would pipe hydroelectricity from Canada to Massachusetts through Maine.

The draft recommendation said CMP’s project overall complies with the commission’s land-use standards, although it requires CMP to remove and in some cases add vegetation, assure emergency vehicles can get into the planned hydropower corridor and get applicable construction permits.

It is the second regulator, behind the Maine Public Utilities Commission, to consider a permit for the project. The public utilities commission granted its permit in April.

“The next step is for the commissioners to deliberate for a possible vote on a decision at the Jan. 8 meeting,” said Bill Hinkel, the commission’s regional supervisor, who penned the Dec. 30 memo.

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The draft recommendation met with disapproval from some who oppose the CMP project.

“We are extremely disappointed in the LUPC staff’s recommendation as it devalues the importance of preserving Maine’s natural, scenic, and recreational resources of the Kennebec River and National Scenic Appalachian Trail in particular, which are the focus of this permit review,” said Sandi Howard, director of the grassroots Say NO to NECEC group and co-leader of an initiative to bring the proposed CMP corridor to a statewide vote on the November 2020 ballot.

Howard said the draft recommendation reflects politics in Augusta. Gov. Janet Mills supports the project, although her hometown of Farmington in March voted to rescind an earlier letter of support for it.

“This is exactly why the people of Maine need to force a statewide vote to block the corridor,” she said. “It’s our best shot at protecting the future of our state.”

“The NECEC remains on schedule to complete permitting and start construction in 2020 and to begin commercial operation in December 2022,” said Thorn Dickinson, vice president of business development at Avangrid, the parent company of CMP. “While we are looking forward to the hearing in January, we will refrain from making any comment until a final decision is made.”

The Land Use Planning Commission itself quibbled over the project and to what degree it might disturb remote lands and fishing sites in Maine.

In September, the commission failed to agree on granting a site law certification for the project to CMP. The commission’s chairman, Everett Worcester, said at the time that the commissioners were close to agreeing on exceptions for the lines at the Kennebec River and Appalachian Trail, but remained deadlocked on Beattie Pond, a fishery that is protected.

Shortly after the meeting CMP asked the commission to amend its application to re-route the line from Beattie Pond to Merrill Strip Township, where it would be allowed with a permit. The move will add $1 million to the project.

The Land Use Planning Commission oversees the Unorganized Territory, the area of Maine where there are no incorporated municipal governments.

The commission is a nine-member board composed of county and gubernatorial appointees. It needs five votes to pass or deny any request.

In turn, its decision would certify to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection whether the CMP project is an allowed use within the areas where it is proposed. The DEP will consider the commission’s recommendations within its own decision.

The commission is the second regulator, behind the Maine Public Utilities Commission, to consider a permit. The public utilities commission granted its permit in April.

Another key approval, for energy contracts, came from the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities in June.

The other required approvals for the CMP project are a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wetlands permit, an ISO New England section 1.3.9 approval and a U.S. Department of Energy presidential permit.

Municipal approvals also are required for construction of project components such as substations and transmission structures. The type and number of permits will vary, depending on location.