CHESTERVILLE – Residents voted overwhelmingly to oppose the New England Clean Energy Connect transmission line at a special town meeting Thursday evening, joining other Franklin County towns that have moved to oppose the project.
Roughly 90 people attended the hour-long public forum prior to the special town meeting vote, with the vast majority voting to change the town’s stance from in favor of the project to opposed. The follow-up article, instructing the selectmen to draft a letter stating the town’s new position to Central Maine Power and the various state agencies responsible for the project’s permitting, also passed easily.
Much like the town of Jay, the special town meeting was triggered by residents submitting signatures to the Board of Selectmen. Resident Megan Heikkenen submitted 121 signatures to the board earlier this month, nearly double the 65 required to hold a meeting. Like most local towns, Chesterville previously voted to support NECEC when the project was initially presented.
CMP was represented by Thorn Dickinson, a vice president with Avangrid, CMP’s parent company, and the NECEC project manager; and Gerry Mirabile, who has been working on the project’s environmental permitting. Speaking in opposition to the project was Tom Saviello, a former state senator and current Wilton selectperson, and Darryl Wood, a former Chesterville and current New Sharon resident; both men have been outspoken against NECEC.
Dickinson said that the NECEC project would help meet increasingly aggressive goals to bring clean energy into the region, running a Direct Current line 145 miles from the Canadian border down to Lewiston. Roughly 50 miles of that line would be new corridor, 150 feet in width, Dickinson said, while the existing corridor would be expanded 75 feet. A total of 6/10ths of a mile of NECEC ran through Chesterville, he said. The project would clear roughly 2,000 acres of land, Dickinson said, contrasting that figure with the 2,700 acres of land that CMP was protecting via new easements and the 400,000 acres of land harvested annually.
Mirabile said that the project had undertaken a number of steps to further minimize local impacts, including running the line under the Kennebec River gorge, expanding stream buffers, utilizing vegetation tapering at the edges of the corridor and promising to not use herbicides in Segment 1, the northernmost portion of the project. Responding to a question from the audience, the CMP representatives said that the corridor would be open to public access for snowmobiles, ATVs and hunting.
Wood said that the project would not provide significant benefits to Mainers, but would make CMP a significant amount of money. While the 1,600 annual job figure was often quoted in CMP advertising, Wood said, those temporary jobs would be reduced to 38 permanent jobs once construction was complete. NECEC had the potential to do more economic damage locally, Wood argued, harming local forestry and alternative energy companies that employed far more people, as well as local property values.
Saviello said that he found CMP’s comments regarding greenhouse gas reductions ironic, given that, while a state senator, he had seen the company traditionally fight climate change-related legislation. He included LD 640, the previous legislature’s effort to study the greenhouse gas impact of the project, as an example. Furthermore, Saviello said, the greenhouse gas reductions cited by CMP would happen regardless as to whether NECEC went forward, as Massachusetts had mandated the inclusion of green energy toward meeting that state’s energy needs.
Saviello also questioned CMP’s fitness in undertaking the NECEC project, given other events that have received recent publicity, including the company’s billing issues for some customers. That point cropped up repeatedly at the forum: Selectperson Tiffany Estabrook asked whether CMP could handle the expansion, given those recent struggles, and other speakers made similar points. Dickinson said that the project should be considered on its own merits. He pointed to the Maine Power Reliability Project, which he quantified as being 40 percent larger than NECEC, as an example toward CMP’s ability to complete a large project.
While the majority of those addressing the forum participants appeared to be opposed to the project, some indicated their support as it related to addressing climate change. Paul Stancioff of Chesterville said that he believed that the line would increase the state’s energy security and that the best way to address climate change was work toward the utilization of electricity via renewable sources.
Responding to a question from the audience, both Dickinson and Saviello agreed that Thursday’s vote and local engagement was important. Dickinson said that the project had received the state Public Utilities Commission’s Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity and was proceeding through the state and federal processes, prior to approaching town boards for local permitting approval. If a local board should prevent the project from advancing, Dickinson later said, CMP could appeal that decision to the PUC. Saviello said that towns could consider moratoriums on new energy projects, that he anticipated that more legislation relating to NECEC would emerge from the next legislative session and that a ballot question on the issue remained a possibility.
Following the forum, residents swiftly selected Denis Culley, who also served as the forum’s moderator, as the meeting moderator and voted by a show of orange cards in favor of switching the town’s stance from in support of NECEC to in opposition. In doing so, they became the sixth municipality in Franklin County that the NECEC project would pass through to oppose the project: Farmington, Wilton, New Sharon, Industry and Jay. The Franklin County Commissioners previously voted to rescind their support, but did not take a position in opposition.