The Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the lease in rural Somerset County was granted lawfully to CMP.
In the Feb. 9, 2021, file photo, Cianbro employees guide the top of the first pole of the NECEC hydropower transmission corridor onto its base. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The $1 billion hydropower corridor proposed by Central Maine Power Co. cleared one obstacle when the state’s high court upheld a public land lease on Tuesday, but other hurdles remain for the controversial project.

In a 50-page opinion from five justices, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled a lease covering about 1 acre crucial to the project in rural Somerset County was granted lawfully by the administration of Gov. Janet Mills, turning back an argument from anti-corridor officials that it needed legislative approval.

The ruling was the second of two long-anticipated decisions from the court that could help revive the hydropower project formally called the New England Clean Energy Connect.

Time still may be the major problem facing CMP and its affiliates. Another case before a lower court over the constitutionality of a 2021 referendum that stalled the project will stretch into next year, rubbing up against an end-of-2023 deadline from Massachusetts to build the massive expansion of the regional electricity grid.

“We are pleased with today’s ruling and look forward to determining our next steps for this critical project,” Scott Mahoney, the general counsel for CMP’s parent company, said in a statement.

The case decided Tuesday was originally filed March 2021 by state Sen. Russell Black, R-Wilton, and others against the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, which manages public lands and determines whether leases substantially alter land use. If they do, both chambers of the Legislature must approve that use by two-thirds votes.

In August 2021, Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy reversed the bureau’s decision to lease the land. Three days later, CMP and NECEC Transmission LLC, the company that would run the corridor, appealed to the law court. Initial arguments in the case were heard in May 2022.

The high court reversed Murphy’s decision Tuesday, declining to send it back to a lower court for more debate and saying the lease for the corridor did not constitute a substantial alteration of the land.

“We conclude that the record establishes that the Bureau acted within its constitutional and statutory authority in granting the 2020 lease,” the justices wrote.

The law court ruled on the case in late August, saying part of a 2021 referendum blocking the controversial corridor was unconstitutional. Backers must still win in a lower court to keep the project on track. The anti-corridor referendum overwhelmingly passed and halted construction.

Anti-corridor activists were disappointed in a ruling that circumvented the constitutional “safeguard” of a two-thirds vote in the Legislature, said Tom Saviello, a former Wilton selectman and state lawmaker who helped lead the campaign against the project. But he said CMP still has issues in the end-of-2023 deadline and the case in the lower court.

“I’m still reasonably optimistic we’re going to prevail,” Saviello said.

In a separate challenge to the leases, the Bureau of Environmental Protection ruled in July that CMP could access the leases if Maine’s high court ultimately rules the referendum unconstitutional.

The referendum over the project, which was aimed at stopping it, was the most expensive ballot initiative in state history, with campaigns spending more than $90 million.

The milelong, 300-foot-wide parcel in question was initially leased to CMP in 2014 under former Gov. Paul LePage for $4,000 per year. On the same day in June 2020 that corridor critics filed a lawsuit challenging that lease, the administration of Gov. Janet Mills finalized a renegotiated lease with the utility and its partners, raising the fee to $65,000 per year.

Both Mills, a Democrat, and LePage, a Republican who lost to her in the November election, backed the corridor.

BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.