The jury concluded CMP and its partners acted in good faith and didn't expedite construction to interfere with the 2021 referendum.
Heavy machinery is used to cut trees to widen an existing Central Maine Power power line corridor to make way for new utility poles on April 26, 2021, near Bingham. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

PORTLAND, Maine — A jury that heard complicated testimony about construction schedules and constitutional rights delivered a victory Thursday for a $1 billion transmission project, concluding developers had a constitutional right to proceed despite being rebuked by state voters in a referendum.

Jurors ruled 9-0 in favor of developers when asked to decide whether enough work was completed in good faith before the referendum for developers to have a vested right to complete the project.

Based on the outcome, a state judge is expected to issue a judgment that the referendum can’t be applied to the project.

That decision could be appealed to the state Supreme Judicial Court for the final say.

At stake is a project touted as a bold effort to combat climate change by supplying up to 1,200 megawatts of Canadian hydropower to the New England power grid — enough electricity for about 1 million homes.

Supporters say electricity supplied by the 145-mile (233-kilometer) power transmission line would lower energy costs in all of New England as well as reduce carbon pollution. Critics contended that the benefits were overblown and that it would’ve destroyed woodlands along a new, 53-mile (85-kilometer) section carved through the woods to reach the Canadian border.

Despite winning all regulatory approvals, the project — to be fully funded by Massachusetts ratepayers — was met with pushback each step of the way. Ultimately, state voters voted against it in a referendum and work was halted.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine, which opposes the power line, said in a statement on Thursday that it was disappointed in the outcome and remains “sharply focused on achieving a just and equitable clean energy future that works for all Mainers.”

“We’re pursuing home-grown clean energy sources, like utility-scale solar, offshore wind, and the King Pine wind project in Aroostook County that will deliver new and verifiable reductions in pollution rather than a shell game that shifts existing energy for maximum corporate profit,” the council said.

The Supreme Judicial Court breathed new life into the project last summer, concluding the retroactive nature of the referendum would violate the developers’ constitutional rights if substantial construction had been completed in good faith.

Justice Michael A. Duddy could have made the fact-finding determination himself. But he took the unusual step of ordering a jury trial, putting the fate of the trial in the hands of nine regular folks.

Central Maine Power’s parent company and Hydro Quebec teamed up on New England Clean Energy Connect and construction started in January 2021, about 10 months before the referendum in which 59% of voters rejected the project.

Scott Mahoney, senior vice president and general counsel at Avangrid, CMP’s parent company, said Thursday that the jury’s conclusion “affirms the prior rulings of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court” that the project may proceed.

Opponents contended the developers acted in bad faith, speeding up the construction schedule to try to thwart the will of the people in the referendum. Developers said they were keeping to a schedule set years earlier.

The matter is one of two lawsuits to go before the Supreme Judicial Court.

The other lawsuit challenged leases for a 1-mile portion of the proposed power line that crossed state land. The high court ultimately ruled there was nothing improper with the lease.

The operator of the regional power grid expressed support for the project Thursday.

“We are pleased that this project can continue to move forward. The New England states’ ambitious climate goals will require building significant amounts of new infrastructure in a region where building infrastructure has been difficult,” said Anne C. George, chief spokesperson for ISO New England.

Story by David Sharp, the Associated Press