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Organized oppositions begins campaign against Northern Pass power line

December 16, 2010
NORTH COUNTRY- As residents continue to search for regional benefits of the project that could boost a struggling regional economy, members of the organized opposition to the power line seem confident in their assessment that there are none.

"It's the people with less power being used by the people with more power," said Kris Pastoriza, an Easton resident who is involved with Bury the Northern Pass, a group that has formed in Grafton County to oppose the 140-mile direct current transmission line that will run from Quebec, through the North Country, to a converter substation in Franklin.

The line will consist of towers ranging from 90 to 135-feet, mostly along Public Service of New Hampshire's (PSNH) existing right-of-way, which runs across Pastoriza's land. The opposition group's name, Bury the Northern Pass, works both metaphorically and literally, said Pastoriza, as there are member who feel burying the line underground a much costlier approach would be adequate, and others who don't want the line going through the North Country in any capacity. Other alternatives to the proposed project include running the line along the Connecticut River or putting part of it through Vermont, where another right-of-way already exists.

Whatever the approach, Pastoriza outlines the daunting task for those who oppose the power line.

"They have had two years to do their studies, and hundreds of thousands of dollars. We had it all sprung on us," said Pastoriza.

The "they" Pastoriza refers to are the three companies heading up the Northern Pass project: Hydro Quebec, Northeast Utilities (Public Service of New Hampshire's parent company), and NSTAR. They brought the project into the public eye just last month, holding informational meetings across the region in the following weeks, and diving into the permitting process.

"They don't care [about public opinion]. They're a company. They're only interested in public opinion as far as it will affect their company," said Pastoriza, adding that as a company with shareholders, it can even be sued if it does not act in the financial interest of its shaereholders.

Northern Pass is in the midst of applying for a Presidential Permit, necessary for projects that cross international borders. The deadline to submit public input to be considered in the process is tomorrow, about a month after the announcement of the project in the opinion of Pastoriza, a deliberate ploy by the project to decrease public input.

Further south, news of the project seems to be circulating a bit slower, according to Campton Realtor Darlene King, who has been in contact with Bury the Northern Pass.

"It's publicly just started off. It's not been very well known up until now," said King.

King cites the negative financial impact on the tourism industry and property values as reasons for opposing the line.

"If you're in southern New Hampshire, there are other businesses you can survive on. Past the Lakes Region, it is mostly tourism," said King.

The Northern Pass project boasts the creation of between 1,100 to 1,300 construction jobs for the project, numbers that King calls into question.

"We don't know how many are going to be from around here," said King, adding that people who have experience constructing the towers will be more likely to be hired, many of whom will come from outside the area. Ultimately, King believes that the number of jobs lost in relation to a declining tourism industry will offset any jobs created by the project.

King also cites the line's effect on property values as a potentially devastating effect on local economies. The National Realtors Association has done studies all over the country in relation to property values when high voltage power lines are constructed, said King. These studies have found between 30 to 75 percent loss in value dependant on such factors as proximity to power line and obstruction of view.

Realtor Peter Powell, of Lancaster, did not present any figures, but put his perspective in more basic terms.

"It's very simple: if things don't look good, they won't sell," said Powell, who recalls a power line project that was defeated in the 1980s based on similar concerns.

"It was absurd to think that values would not be negatively impacted by putting ugly things on a landscape," said Powell, adding that some realtors have already reported trouble showing properties that fall along the proposed route.

In Dalton, the proposed project is already changing landowners' attitudes towards their land, said Powell. Do they want to treat it as the treasure they have been, or should they just subdivide, asked Powell, highlighting the internal struggle already underway.

The one positive factor Powell said he has heard repeated by some North Country selectmen and town managers is the boost to the tax rate. Northern Pass said that every mile of line will add approximately $2.5 million to the town's tax rate. For some North Country communities that are seriously struggling, this prospect seems something to hold onto during difficult times. Powell identifies it as false hope.

The companies will pay the towns less over time, as is common with such projects, and the hit from depreciating property values another factor in determining the town tax base will at least offset any added revenue.

"I cannot see any benefits that have enough weight to offset the risks and potential tragedies," concluded Powell.

David Van Houten, Bethlehem resident and member of the Coos Community Benefits Alliance (CCBA), is not ready to make a judgment on the project yet. The CCBA, which has been in existence for a few years, is a non-profit organization of roughly 100 members that works to ensure that energy projects in the Coos County region result in long-term, tangible benefits for local communities and the natural resources base.

"We have decided we are not going to take a position on anything. The bottom line for us is the well-being of families in the region," said Van Houten.

The group has decided to file for intervener status, as have several other entities across Grafton and Coos counties, during the Presidential Permitting process. Intervener status generally signifies opposition to the project, but the CCBA means it only as a way to ensure access to information to pass along to residents, and a seat at the negotiating table.

Though Van Houten would not take a stance on the project, he did comment on the viability of the North Country harnessing some of the low-cost power for themselves, a suggestion that has been made by parties who only oppose the project because of its lack of benefit to the North Country.

"There's no point in trying to tap into it in the North Country," said Van Houten. The equipment to do so is very expensive and the demand is not there. Ideally, Van Houten thinks the region should be focusing on keeping the money expended on energy in the region through the nurturing of a biomass industry, and the increased efficiency of energy projects already in the region.

"The region spends $20 million plus [per year] for propane and heat. That all leaves the area," said Van Houten. "Just think if we could keep some of that in the area."

This prospect is made much more difficult by the possibility of the Northern Pass project, claim those who oppose the project. They are concerned that greener renewable energy projects that could benefit the local economy will not happen because of the Northern Pass.

"A lot of smaller projects have pulled back," said Valerie Herres, of Lancaster. "They can't compete with the larger companies."

The Northern Pass project has been marketed as renewable energy, and as potentially working towards the state's goal of 25 percent renewable energy by 2025 but that's not true, at least not yet, explained Herres. Vermont recently changed its laws to allow Hydro Quebec's energy to be considered renewable, and Herres worries New Hampshire will follow suit.

"It's renewable, but it's not green," said Herres. "It's like using oil as if it were an infinite resource. It's still going to negatively affect the environment."

Herres is part of Stop the Towers, an opposition group centered in Coos County. The group is currently working with Bury the Northern Pass to encourage residents to present petitioned warrant articles at their town meetings opposing the project. The idea began in Colebrook, supported by the selectmen. The opposition groups hope to have warrant articles in all the towns along the proposed route.

"This is the New Hampshire way," said Herres. "We do things locally."

The issues in northern Coos County are slightly different than those of southern Coos County and Grafton County, as there is no existing right-of-way for the power line to follow. A new right-of-way will have to be purchased by PSNH, and if property owners will not agree to sell their land, the state will have to decide whether to take it by eminent domain.

"The people of the North Country have been good stewards to the land; we've taken good care of it," said Herres.

Opposition groups see the reasons for the slightly different alternate route the project proposes--should the preferred route meet with disapproval--as an attempt to set towns against each other. If this is the case, it doesn't seem to be working. Though the reasons for opposition vary and the residents stretch miles across Coos and Grafton counties, North Country communities are coming together to work against the Northern Pass project.

Last month, roughly 250 people showed up in Colebrook for an informational meeting opposing the project and just last week, the Colebrook selectmen invited municipal representatives from across the region to an opposition workshop. Last night, Bury the Northern Pass hosted Alexander Lee at the Franconia Town Hall to deliver a lecture called, "Is Big Hydro Green? Quebec Hydro, High Voltage Transmission Lines, and Clean Energy."

Opposition to a project of this scope promises difficulty, but Herres, at least, considers it a worthy cause.

"This is a fight worth fighting because when it comes to protecting something that is beautiful, that you love, and that is a gift to everyone in New Hampshire, then it's worth that fight to maintain it," said Herres.

Martin Lord Osman
Varney Smith
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