THE FORKS, Maine — The drive south on Troutdale Road along the western shore of Moxie Pond runs through the heart of what Denise Rancourt loves most about this remote area of Somerset County.
Rancourt lives some 2 miles up the single-lane road populated now by mostly snow-covered seasonal homes. She and her husband are here year-round, snowmobiling in the winter, boating in the summer, hunting in the fall and enjoying the quiet. Something new rose right across the road from their property last Tuesday: the first pole of the controversial Central Maine Power corridor project.
For the past several weeks, trucks and equipment rumbled past the Rancourts’ house to clear 75 extra feet for the new project in an existing electric corridor. The traffic was noisy, she said, and disrupted travel for snowmobilers and the small number of year-round residents in the plantation of 23 people as of 2019. She didn’t expect the first pole to be raised until next year, and seeing it took her by surprise.
“We were pretty devastated,” said Rancourt, a vocal corridor opponent who is town clerk, treasurer and tax collector in bordering West Forks. “I just feel like every special part of this area is going to be taken over by power lines and that is just very sad.”
As the project starts, emotions remain high in The Forks and neighboring West Forks about the 145-mile power line called the New England Clean Energy Connect. The towns lie at the epicenter of the most disputed section of the project, where a final 53-mile segment of the project will cut through areas with no existing power lines. The project will take Quebec hydropower to the regional grid.
A court injunction temporarily bans work in that segment, which runs from part of The Forks to Beattie Township on the Canadian border. However, the north end of Moxie Pond where Rancourt lives is in a southerly segment that is being developed through to the Wyman hydroelectric dam in Moscow. A second pole was raised Thursday in Moscow, a spokesperson for CMP parent Avangrid said.
Others like Joe Christopher welcomed the start of construction, saying it is bringing new business to inns, restaurants, gas stations and other shops in the remote area during a pandemic-stalled economy.
There has been little snow this winter, so the extra business from the corridor workers has helped, Christopher said. Corridor crew wearing reflective orange vests stood out among the lunch crowd at the inn the day the pole was put up. Long term, Christopher sees the project as potentially helping with broadband, which will be strung alongside the electric wires and be available to towns in certain areas.
“The project is a good boost for us,” he said.
Just a mile away from the inn, Hawk’s Nest Lodge owner Pete Dostie sees no uptick in business. He said he worries about the final 53 miles of the project and its effect on the woods. Dostie, who also is an assessor for West Forks, signed an affidavit as part of the bid for the injunction.
“We have 6,000 guests a year and a good part of those people go to the top of Coburn Mountain, and now it’s going to look like hell,” Dostie said of the popular snowmobile trail. “No one is happy with it.”
That includes Clifford Stevens, owner of Moxie Outdoor Adventures on Troutdale Road, who is concerned about losing regular customers because the new poles will be visible when they hike, snowmobile or explore on ATVs. It’s hard to attract such repeat customers, who enjoy being in nature and in an area with no internet or cellphones, he said.
“There will be some clients who will choose to go somewhere else because it won’t be the same,” he said.
Stevens was not part of Western Mountains & Rivers Corp., a nonprofit that stirred controversy by signing an agreement in June 2018 with CMP to offset negative effects of the project. Christopher, who also owns West Forks rafting business Three Rivers Whitewater, was part of the group.
Initially the agreement called for CMP to provide $22 million in conservation mitigation and nature-based tourism. But that would drop to $5 million if CMP had to bury lines near the Kennebec River Gorge, which the company agreed to do in October 2018. The memorandum also offered businesses that supported it the potential to buy the land they currently lease from CMP.
Strong opposing opinions in a small community have made for some uncomfortable conversations in The Forks and West Forks, the latter of which has 58 residents. Rancourt also is fighting the corridor, and is among those who have collected signatures for a second referendum bid in 2021 to stop its construction.
“At this point, everybody is respecting other people’s stances on the project,” she said, noting that interactions with corridor workers have been polite. “They’re really just doing their jobs,” she said.
NECEC project manager Adam Desrosiers said he hopes that people seeing the work in progress would help diminish opposition. The project work will occur in the winter along Troutdale Road, and remaining poles and wires will be installed next winter, he said.
The existing 150-foot-wide corridor, composed of 50-foot-high wooden poles, was widened another 75 feet to accommodate the new direct current electricity lines for the NECEC project. The Forks and West Forks will have 87 poles combined, while the entire project will span 829 poles.
The poles, which at 100 feet high and 16 feet deep are double the height of the wooden poles, are made of “weathering” steel, which develops a rusty brown patina over time that Desrosiers said should blend in better with the environment than regular steel.
So far, NECEC has permits for the poles and wire from the towns of Moscow, Starks and Farmington, Desrosiers said through a company spokesperson. The Forks is regulated by Maine’s Land Use Planning Commission, which has approved the NECEC project, and does not require additional municipal permits. The project also has a permit for a converter station in Lewiston. The corridor also has necessary state and federal permits in place.
Rancourt said she cannot see the new pole from her house, as it faces the other direction and is obscured by trees. But she is sure that extra height will be visible from Moxie Pond and from Mosquito Mountain, a popular hiking destination nearby, so she intends to keep fighting the project.
“There are businesses that are benefiting from this, but it’s only temporary,” she said.