Cianbro employees guide the top of the first pole of the NECEC hydropower transmission corridor onto its base in West Forks, Maine, in this Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021, photo. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

A judge on Maine’s high court ruled that a Central Maine Power Co. affiliate must refrain from work on public land on roughly one mile of its 145-mile hydropower corridor.

The ruling, made Wednesday by Justice Joseph Jabar but delivered to the lawsuit parties on Friday, said developers must refrain from all construction activities, including vegetation removal, on the leased premises in the West Forks Plantation and Johnson Mountain Township public reserved lands during the length of an appeal to lift the stay.

NECEC LLC, the CMP-affiliated developer of the $1 billion project, said work can continue on all but the disputed area and called the ruling a “blow to opponents of the project and their efforts to halt construction entirely.”

That will allow NECEC to work on the 53 miles of new corridor to the north of the disputed land and on the existing corridor to its south, “but they’ve still got to connect it somehow in the middle, and they don’t have permission to do that right now,” Sen. Russell Black, R-Wilton, one of the anti-corridor advocates contesting the lease, said.

A Superior Court judge ruled in March that the state must determine whether the project will substantially alter the land it crosses. If so, the Maine Constitution holds that both chambers of the Legislature would need to approve leases already granted by the Bureau of Parks and Lands. Legislators and the administration of Gov. Janet Mills continue to argue over the legality of the public lease.

A referendum on November’s ballot aimed at halting the corridor seeks to ban the construction of high-impact electric transmission lines in the Upper Kennebec Region and to require the Legislature to approve other such projects using public land anywhere in Maine by a two-thirds vote.

The land in question was initially leased to CMP in 2014 under former Gov. Paul LePage for $4,000 per year. On the same day that corridor critics filed a lawsuit challenging that lease, the Mills administration 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 running against the current governor in 2022, back the corridor.