Heavy machinery is used to cut trees to widen an existing Central Maine Power power line corridor to make way for new utility poles, Monday, April 26, 2021, near Bingham. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — A judge ruled on Tuesday that the administration of Gov. Janet Mills had no authority to enter a renegotiated public land lease at the heart of debate over the $1 billion hydropower corridor.

The decision from Maine Superior Court judge Michaela Murphy was expected after she issued an initial ruling in March that the state had to conduct further analysis of its lease of 33 state-owned acres in rural Somerset County that are being used to build the controversial western Maine corridor between the Quebec border and Lewiston.

It could give anti-corridor lawmakers their clearest path yet to hinder the project. While Central Maine Power Co. and Hydro-Quebec, which will supply the energy to the New England grid, could find another way to build through the area if the lease was lost, such a move could delay permitting with an anti-corridor referendum already set for the November ballot.

The land in question was initially leased to CMP in 2014 under former Gov. Paul LePage for $4,000 per year. On the same day that corridor critics filed a lawsuit challenging that lease, the Mills administration finalized a renegotiated lease with the utility and its partners that raised the fee to $65,000 per year. Both Mills, a Democrat, and LePage, a Republican, back the corridor.

At the heart of the lawsuit is whether those decisions reduced or substantially altered state lands. If they do, the Maine Constitution holds that both chambers of the Legislature must authorize leases by two-thirds votes.

Murphy found that the Bureau of Parks and Lands had no authority to enter either lease because the state must make a public determination of whether the leases in question fit that constitutional standard and allow the Legislature to exercise its discretion. That did not happen in either case, nor did the administrations ask lawmakers to weigh in.

If such a public process was not required, the constitutional provision “would be hollow and the Legislature’s ability to discharge its constitutional duty would be undermined or thwarted,” she said. The case is likely to be appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, the judge said in her ruling. 

“We are reviewing the Superior Court’s decision to determine our next steps on this matter,” Thorn Dickinson, CEO and president of NECEC Transmission, the CMP affiliate building the corridor, said.

Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, who was one of the plaintiffs, said he hopes the Mills administration will “do the right thing and put the question to the Legislature.” Both chambers passed a resolution from Bennett in July arguing the state needed to seek legislative approval. Those margins effectively guarantee that the lease would not win supermajorities.

“I think it will be very difficult to get a two-thirds vote of the Legislature,” Bennett said, pointing to CMP’s problems, including metering and billing anomalies. “I think they understand that so they’re going to fight with every tooth and every nail in order to circumvent the Constitution.”

BDN writer Lori Valigra contributed to this report.

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after time at the Kennebec Journal. He lives in Augusta, graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and has a master's degree from the University...