In this April 26, 2021, file photo, workers pound stakes to mark land on an existing Central Maine Power power line corridor that has been recently widened to make way for new utility poles, near Bingham. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — A referendum aiming to kill the $1 billion hydropower corridor has turned into a debate over wider effects on Maine’s business climate, even though the number of other public land leases affected by the question appears to be small. 

Mainers are set to vote next month on the referendum, the latest stage of a years-long battle over Central Maine Power Co. and its corridor, which will bring hydropower from Quebec through western Maine to connect with New England’s energy grid in Lewiston.

The project has generally drawn support from business and labor interests while dividing state lawmakers and environmentalists and energizing grassroots opposition. A Spectrum News/Ipsos poll in September found corridor backers are underwater with the electorate, with 50 percent of voters opposed and 34 percent favoring the project.

CMP has pivoted in the past few months from highlighting the benefits of the corridor as a source of clean energy to arguing that the referendum would negatively affect other projects. Its recent ads, run by the group Mainers for Fair Laws, do not mention the corridor directly, instead arguing that “retroactive laws” are bad for business. Corridor opponents have pushed back on that in their own ads, arguing only CMP’s project would be affected.

The truth is more complicated: While a few other state leases on public lands could face votes on their fate in the Legislature if the referendum passes, they are not likely to be as controversial as the corridor, a subject that has dominated Augusta politics for nearly two years.

This dispute stems from the final portion of the ballot question, which calls for a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to approve leases for a range of initiatives on public land back to 2014. Part of the law altered by the referendum cites infrastructure including “electric power transmission and telecommunication transmission lines and facilities, roads, bridges and landing strips.”

CMP-sponsored groups seized on that provision last week to identify other leases that would be affected by the referendum, including a 2016 lease obtained by a New Hampshire-based Christian camp business to upgrade a telephone line on public lands in Dennistown and a 2020 lease signed by an Presque Isle-based technology company for a radio relaying station on public lands in Township 11 in Aroostook County.

The language of the referendum is clear that any telecommunications facility would be included within and that the language would apply statewide and not just in the upper Kennebec region, said Dan Wathen, a retired Maine Supreme Judicial Court chief justice who reviewed the lease in Township 11. (He is affiliated with Pierce Atwood, which has represented CMP, but he said he is not currently working for the energy company.)

“It really is not accurate to say this would not have any impact on anything other than the CMP corridor,” he said.

The Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, which is responsible for the leases, declined to offer a legal opinion on how the language of the ballot question would apply. While Gov. Janet Mills backs the project, the agency has no position on the referendum, spokesperson Jim Britt said. He confirmed that the agency had issued three leases for public lands for electric and telecommunications facilities since 2014, including the corridor project and the two other examples cited by CMP.

Anti-corridor advocates still contest whether other projects would be affected. Tom Saviello, a Wilton selectman, former state lawmaker and leader of the group No CMP Corridor, pointed to the summary language of the original petition, which refers to high-powered transmission lines.

Even under the interpretation that other projects would be subject to legislative review, the Legislature could approve them with a two-thirds majority, as lawmakers would recognize the impact to be significantly smaller than that of the corridor, Saviello noted.

“Do you think the Legislature is going to disapprove of a repeater on the top of an existing tower that they can’t do anything about? Is the Legislature going to refuse a 940-foot line underground?” he said. “No, this is all about the power lines.”

If other leases come up in the Legislature, lawmakers could choose to block them, regardless of what anti-corridor advocates say now, CMP allies note. Mainers for Fair Laws spokesperson Adrienne Bennett said the issue proves that proponents of the referendum do not understand its “true impact.”

But anti-corridor activists contest that the energy company is simply trying to shift the narrative away from its project.

“It’s a bogeyman that they’re throwing out there to try to get people confused about what we’re saying,” Saviello said.