September 18, 2013LINCOLN — Few phrases can start a debate like "Northern Pass." The controversial electric transmission proposal has created strong opposition in the region. Others in the North Country believe the project can benefit local communities.
The Loon Mountain Resort hosted both sides last Wednesday at the latest Northern Pass open house. Although strong opinions were evident, friendly conversation prevailed.
Northern Pass first got the public's attention nearly three years ago. Northeast Utilities, the parent company of PSNH, is working with Hydro Quebec to bring 1,200 megawatts of electricity into the New England grid. Lines would enter northern Coös County, then proceed more than 180 miles down the state to Deerfield. The recently revised Northern Pass route includes 7.5 miles of underground lines, but most would be overhead.
Wednesday's open house was the seventh that Northern Pass has offered New Hampshire residents. The night before, a similar event took place in Lancaster.
One prominent aspect of Lincoln's open house was the color orange, which anti-Northern Pass groups have adopted. Several attendees wore the color, and orange-clad people handed out literature at the Loon Mountain entrance off Route 112.
Although minds may not have changed, the open house's respectful discussions were evident. At one station, residents asked questions about the exact location of the route through their town. Aerial satellite photos helped people visualize the proposed path for the lines.
Lincoln's session drew residents and elected officials from several towns. These included selectmen Ned Cutler (Easton), Margo Connors (Sugar Hill), and Joel Bourassa (Woodstock). Bourassa's wife, Alice Pearce, who chairs the Lin-Wood budget committee, was also on hand. State representative Linda Lauer was another person who conversed with several people at the open house.
Project spokesman Mike Skelton discussed the goals for the open house process. He said the sessions aim to facilitate one-on-one conversation between property owners and Northern Pass employees or supporters.
Skelton said one outcome of the conversations could be a site visit to a person's property. "We want to work with every landowner out there," he said.
A good deal of information about Northern Pass can be found online. However, Skelton said the open house format offers a lot for those curious about the proposed energy transmission plan. "The richest amount of information is available at these events," Skelton said.
Booths at the event provided general data about Northern Pass, as well as specific numbers for three communities. Skelton said the Lincoln event was open to residents of any town, but targeted for people in Lincoln, Sugar Hill and Easton.
One-page documents with statistical information were available for each of the three towns. Northern Pass estimates an infrastructure investment of $63.5 million along the proposed 18.3 miles of overhead lines across the three towns. Like most of the project, Northern Pass would place the towers and lines within existing rights of way in Lincoln, Easton, and Sugar Hill.
New project infrastructure would provide tax benefits for towns, the documents note. Estimates of the revenue boost are $153,807 (Easton), $106,655 (Lincoln), and $385,434 (Sugar Hill). Additional funds would add to county revenue, as well.
Northern Pass opponents argue that any boost to local coffers does not justify the visual impact that the lines would have. They are concerned about how the tall towers, surpassing 100 feet in some places, could affect the region's tourist economy and way of life.
Skelton suggested that the project's new route alleviates some of that concern. He said moving the lines further east in Coös County create "less visible impact," thanks to what Skelton deemed a "more remote" location.
Opponents in Grafton County, however, have focused on how Northern Pass could harm views in the White Mountain National Forest. The project must receive a U.S. Forest Service special use permit to run lines through the forest.
A booth at the open house discussed the various regulatory processes that Northern Pass must navigate. Marvin Bellis, an attorney for Northeast Utilities, spoke about the USFS special use permit process. He said USFS must make the determination whether Northern Pass impacts the forest management plan, Bellis noted. Northern Pass has provided a range of project details to USFS as part of the permit process, he added.
Bellis said that the U.S. Department of Energy "is the lead agency" on the federal side. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Fish and Wildlife Service, and a state site evaluation committee are some other bodies that have a say, Bellis concluded.
In Easton earlier this year, Jim Dannis, a project detractor, suggested that the Forest Service special use permit might pose problems for Northern Pass. Dannis added that burying the project in state transportation rights of way was a better choice, if the project must happen at all. Open house attendee Nancy Martland has made a similar suggestion.
Even with all of the information available, some open house attendees were not impressed. Roy Stever, of Easton, said he spent a career in marketing. As he pointed toward the information available at the open house, Stever suggested, "This is the downside of marketing." He believed the respectful conversations at the open house did not change the harm he perceives from Northern Pass.
"Easton is a town know for its views," Stever said. He concluded that Northern Pass would irreparably damage the feel of New Hampshire's communities.
Area residents have another open house available. Northern Pass recently announced that the Sunset Hill House in Sugar Hill will host the informational session on October 23. People can arrive between 5:30 and 7:30 p.m.
Before then, DOE scoping meetings give the public a chance to provide comments on the project. Two are planned for the North Country: September 25 at the Mountain View Grand in Whitefield, and the following evening at Colebrook Elementary School. Both events run from 5 to 8 p.m.
Pro and con arguments on Northern Pass proliferate the Internet. The company's website is www.northernpass.us. A Department of Energy site is http://www.northernpasseis.us. An anti-Northern Pass website can be found at http://www.nonorthernpass.org/nh.