Sep. 9—LEWISTON — City officials reaffirmed support for the controversial New England Clean Energy Connect transmission line Tuesday ahead of a November referendum that looks to halt the project.
While several municipalities along the 145-mile corridor have rescinded earlier support for the project, coupled with a groundswell of public opposition, Lewiston has held on. The city is a central piece of the proposed line, where a $250 million converter station will convert and transmit hydropower from Canada to southern New England.
The project and associated infrastructure upgrades are expected to add more than $6 million in annual tax revenue to the city, which has resulted in unanimous backing from elected officials.
On Tuesday, the City Council passed a resolution that reiterates its "strong support" for the project "in light of the significant benefits NECEC will bring to Lewiston."
The converter station, located at 1651-1653 Main St. and 183 Merrill Road Rear, was given Planning Board approval in January, giving project subcontractors the go-ahead to build an access road and clear trees for the station.
A statewide November referendum, through a citizen's initiative, hopes to halt construction on the project by banning "high-impact" transmission lines in the upper Kennebec region and requiring the Maine Legislature to approve such projects, which would be retroactive to 2020 — before CMP's parent company, Avangrid, had received the necessary permits.
On Tuesday, councilors said while they understand the public's frustration with Central Maine Power, the economic benefit to Lewiston is too important to pass up.
"Our charge is to vote in the best interest of Lewiston, and we've already seen great economic benefit from this," said Councilor Alicia Rea.
Earlier this summer, Lewiston officials held a press conference announcing the city had dropped its property tax rate due to $100 million in new valuation tied to the New England Clean Energy Connect project.
On Tuesday, Councilor Lee Clement said the opposition to NECEC has been full of "half-truths" and false information. He said using a referendum to retroactively pull permits from a project, "doesn't make sense at all."
"I'm firmly behind this now," he said referring to NECEC, adding that the economic benefit for Lewiston "is only going to improve from here."
Councilor Luke Jensen said he's not a fan of CMP, but told residents, "a dislike of CMP should not override the enormous benefit to Lewiston."
The resolution passed Tuesday also included the November referendum language, which asks voters, "Do you want to ban the construction of high-impact electric transmission lines in the Upper Kennebec Region and to require the Legislature to approve all other such projects anywhere in Maine, both retroactively to 2020, and to require the Legislature, retroactively to 2014, to approve by a two-thirds vote such projects using public land?"
According to the Lewiston resolution, "Question 1 is seeking to change the rules of the game after the conclusion of the game ... and projects should be evaluated on their merit, not public opinion."
Ted Varipatis, a NECEC project spokesman, said site development for the converter station is ongoing, adding foundation work is expected to begin either late this fall or early winter.
When asked if the construction timeline had anything to do with the pending referendum, he said work is taking place on all sections of the corridor.
"It's business as usual as far as I can tell," he said.
Lincoln Jeffers, director of economic and community development for Lewiston, said that about a month ago, Code Enforcement staff had detailed discussions with NECEC officials about what will be needed for the building permit. But, he said, permits have not yet been applied for.
Jeffers said many of the converter station components have been or are being manufactured and they will be shipped when installation work begins.
According to earlier Planning Board documents, the station will convert direct current power to alternating current power on a 6.5-acre site with four buildings. The project yard will be secured with an 8-foot-tall chain-link fence with lighting around the perimeter.
During the June news conference, City Assessor William Healey said the $100 million increase in valuation is the largest in a single year since 2006, when the Walmart distribution center came online.
Healey said this week that "pre-engineering" of the converter station has accounted for most of the current valuation.