Maine court hears arguments about bid to stop hydro plan

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Maine's highest court heard arguments Wednesday that could be a taste of a long legal fight over the fate of a proposed hydropower transmission corridor.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court heard arguments about the future of a citizens' campaign to block the much-debated hydropower project. The arguments concerned the New England Clean Energy Connect, which calls for construction of a 145-mile (233-kilometer) high-voltage power line from Mount Beattie Township on the Canadian border to the regional power grid in Lewiston, Maine.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission granted the project a key certificate it needed to move forward, but petitioners gathered enough signatures to put the approval up for a statewide vote. Central Maine Power has proposed the transmission line. Avangrid Networks, CMP's parent, sued the state of Maine with a claim the citizens' initiative was unconstitutional and the vote should be barred.

Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap has agreed with CMP that the referendum question could be unconstitutional. However, he has argued for it to remain on the ballot. A lower court agreed that it should stay there.

Questions remain about whether or not the referendum would be binding. The utility told the court there is “no compelling reason to permit the misuse of the initiative process," the Bangor Daily News reported. But opponents of the project have cast the initiative as a legitimate way for residents to weigh in on the project, which has generated frequent television advertising, much public debate and costly spending so far.

There would likely be more lawsuits if the referendum succeeds.

Opponents of the project have long claimed it would harm Maine wilderness. Supporters have said it would help stabilize electricity rates and support sustainable energy development.