Two upcoming hearings may advance Central Maine Power’s proposed $1 billion plan to construct a hydroelectricity transmission line from Canada through western Maine and on to Massachusetts.
The Land Use Planning Commission, which regulates the Unorganized Territory in Maine, will hold deliberations and possibly decide on a key permit for the project at its Sept. 11 meeting.
And on Sept. 3, the Lewiston City Council will hold a public hearing and first reading of CMP’s request for two zoning changes so it can build a new high-voltage direct current converter substation for the hydropower project. The final reading will be Sept. 17.
The project remains controversial, with opponents questioning its value to Maine and its potential negative impact on scenery and the environment. Even Gov. Janet Mills’ hometown of Farmington voted earlier this year to oppose the project, which the governor supports.
The project, known as the New England Clean Energy Connect, would pipe electricity from the Canadian border through western Maine for use by Massachusetts to meet that state’s clean-energy goals.
CMP in January also received a key approval for power purchase agreements from the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities.
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. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which provides comments to the Army Corps, in early May asked for more details and suggestions on reducing the project’s environmental impact.
Land use hearing first in series of approvals
The Land Use Planning Commission will rule on whether the CMP project should be allowed within the Unorganized Territory, an area of northwestern Maine including 429 townships with no local, incorporated municipal government.
The commission, a nine-member board composed of county and gubernatorial appointees, will certify to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection whether the CMP project is an allowed use of land within the areas where it is proposed.
It will meet Sept. 11 at Jeff’s Catering, 15 Littlefield Way, in Brewer.
If it rules for CMP’s request, it would issue a Site Law Certification to CMP. That certification would then be incorporated into the final permitting decision by the Department of Environmental Protection.
“The [commission] needs to make their decision first in order for [Department of Environmental Protection] to move forward with a determination,” environmental department spokesman David Madore said. “The department expects [to make] a draft decision in late October or early November.”
The department would issue two permits, one for site location, the other for compliance with the Natural Resources Protection Act.
The department and the commission visited parts of the proposed corridor in late June after holding weeklong hearings together in early April to hear testimony on potential environmental impacts of the proposed 145-mile corridor.
Starting to build infrastructure
CMP is beginning to request permits to build infrastructure for the project, including a high-voltage direct current converter substation in Lewiston.
The utility asked the Lewiston planning board to approve its request for zoning changes so it can build the new substation at 183 Merrill Road. It is about 1 mile from its existing substation on Larrabee Road. The two stations will be connected by transmission lines.
Current zoning only allows structures up to 35 feet tall on the property. CMP has asked for that to be lifted to 80 feet, because the building is 70-feet high. It also asked to have the requirement for street frontage removed. The building will be on 20.1 acres of land owned by CMP.
Lewiston’s planning board voted 6-1 on Aug. 26 to approve CMP’s request and send it to the City Council.
“Only one person from the neighborhood showed up to oppose it, but others approved it,” said Doug Greene, deputy director and city planner for Lewiston. The planning board sent letters to property owners within 500 feet of the proposed substation, which Greene said is in an undeveloped area north of the city.
The person who did oppose the project said he worried about noise from the new building. He said he lives near the existing station and hears humming. Greene said the planning board member who voted against it did not like the CMP project.
If the substation zoning is approved after two City Council readings, it still needs to go through a development plan review and a conditional use review. Both would be conducted simultaneously by the planning board. The reviews are to ensure the substation does not have a negative impact on the environment or property values, Greene said.
Greene said the planning board thought the CMP project could be beneficial to Lewiston, offering tax and broadband benefits.
In its zoning change request to the city, CMP said revenues from the new converter on Merrill Road could add about $8.39 million to Lewiston’s annual property tax revenues beginning in 2023.
CMP said the corridor project is on schedule to go into commercial operation Dec. 13, 2022.