Residents continue to mobilize against Northern Pass


January 28, 2011
WOODSTOCK- As Connecticut-based Northeast Utilities and Massachusetts-based NSTAR move forward with their partnership with Hydro-Quebec to build a high tension power line running from Quebec, traversing the length of New Hampshire, and delivering energy to southern New England, their plan becomes less and less popular with locals.

Few have spoken up in favor of the project that seems to yield little – if any – benefit for New Hampshire, while many have mobilized into opposition. One such group, Live Free or Fry, organized a meeting Monday night at the Woodstock Inn that saw five speakers from across the state outline their reasons for opposing the project. The mood in the crowded Clement Room was not one of dread or anxiety as might be expected from a group of people plotting against a multi-billion dollar corporation, but rather of cautious belief – belief in a movement that is uniting not only the North Country, but slowly, it seems, the whole of New Hampshire.

A "flatlander's" plea

"This meeting is for all who are opposed to the Northern Pass project, and when I see a room filled up on a night like tonight, I am encouraged," said Meeting Moderator Dave Dobbins, looking out over the roughly 80 people who crammed into the room, decorated in the very vein of country living that the hodgepodge of assembled New Hampshire residents pledge to protect.

Dobbins lives in Gilford, a fact that might make some of the people in the northernmost tier of the state cry "flatlander," he said, but Dobbins loves New Hampshire, and he loves the North Country.

"There are areas that heal you with serenity," said an emotional Dobbins on the region. "They touch your spirit."

Dobbins, whose Gilford home will not be affected by the Northern Pass, still feels the need to join the opposition to the project, angered, he said, that an out-of-state company is going to come into New Hampshire to destroy the pristine wilderness of the north.

Last week, Dobbins attended an Ashland selectmen's meeting that had representatives of Northern Pass explaining the project, much like the meetings that have taken place in town halls across the state. At the meeting, said Dobbin, the representatives relayed that the project was just in its infancy. Comparing the process to a marathon—which has 26 miles—they said they were at the three-mile marker.

Dobbins proceeded to outline what the Northern Pass project has accomplished thus far: ensuring a participant-paid model from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; conducting a routing study to determine the preferred preliminary route; hiring an environmental consulting firm to start collecting data on existing rights-of-way; making a request to interconnect with ISO New England, the transmission agency that oversees New England's electric power and transmission lines; announcing a converter terminal in Franklin; filing for a Presidential Permit with the Department of Energy; and beginning to hold meetings across the state.

"I guess we could say they've covered a heck of a lot of ground, and they're just on mile marker three," said Dobbins.

The purpose of the meeting, Dobbins said, was to educate, motivate, and provide support, but Dobbins also has a message of urgency.

"We cannot be complacent. Don't be lulled into the idea, not for a moment, that the project is going to give you time," he said before ending with a message of support on behalf of other "flatlanders" who oppose the project.

"I wanted you to know that the North Country is not alone," said Dobbins.

A pilot's fortitude

Peter Martin, a former Air Force and Delta Airlines pilot who lives in Plymouth, took his turn at the podium to preach solidarity, speaking not of how things should be, but how they were going to be.

"We will not sacrifice one single community…We're going to stick together," said Martin, taking a position of "not in anyone's backyard."

Martin said the country has been drifting in the direction of instilling rights for corporations, and that had to stop.

"We've been convinced that we should be on the defensive," said Martin. "We are the people with the rights, and they are the supplicants."

Two of the proposed alternatives to high-tension towers are buried or sub-marine lines, options which Northern Pass representatives point out are much more expensive. Martin countered that Hydro-Quebec made two to three billion in profit last year, falling somewhere between those two figures depending on the report. New Hampshire residents should not have to offer anything, said Martin, but should rest assured that Hydro-Quebec could foot the bill for alternative methods.

Martin also brought up the importance of contacting elected officials.

"We should remember that by ourselves we do not have the resources to fight this company to a standstill," said Martin. "We need our government."

If all you want to write is one sentence, said Martin, make it "No Northern Pass," and send it in a letter to the representatives, and encourage others to do the same.

"We all know somebody, and we want to make sure that the people in government know we will not stand for this," said Martin.

A lawyer's counsel

Born in Canada, but a homeowner in Columbia for 20 years now, Bob Baker has a unique perspective on the Northern Pass project.

"Quebec – it is where I learned to play hockey. It's a wonderful place," said Baker. "Hydro-Quebec – not so wonderful."

Hydro-Quebec made 10 percent of its sales outside of Quebec last year, but that tenth represented 30 percent of its profits, said Baker. What Hydro-Quebec is asking America to do, he said, is to buy their power at a higher rate than their government allows them to sell to Canadians.

Hydro-Quebec is a public utility, actually owned by the government, continued Baker.

"Hydro-Quebec is a crown company of the province of Quebec. Folks, it is the province of Quebec," said Baker. "So, when I say Quebec is trying to take over the ground on which we walk, I think that's a fair portrayal."

Northeast Utilities and NSTAR have put up a combined $750 million in equity, and entered into a construction finance loan agreement with Hydro-Quebec, Baker continued. In the transmission service agreement – a tome outlining the companies' partnership that was submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission – Hydro-Quebec not only ensures that the companies will make back their $750 million investment, but will gain a 12.5 percent return on their equity.

A lawyer mostly working in Connecticut, but also in New Hampshire for the past year, Baker is still a student in the intricacies of the state's public domain statutes, under which the issue of eminent domain falls. Although much of the proposed route for the Northern Pass falls along existing Public Service of New Hampshire rights-of-way, the proposed route north of Lancaster will have to be bought from property owners. If the property owners refuse, the only way for the Northern Pass project to continue would to seize the land through eminent domain, which may be enacted if a project is proved to be for the good of the public.

Right now, Northeast Utilities Transmission Ventures, Inc., the company under which the Northern Pass project officially operates, is a private company, which would make it extremely difficult to enact eminent domain. According to Concord-based lawyer Ray D'Amante, who was present at the meeting, Northeast Utilities Transmission Ventures, Inc. plans on filing for recognition as a public company.

The Northern Pass project has already sent out representatives, hired locally, to visit landowners along the proposed route where no right-of-way currently exists. The landowners are offered $400 for simply signing a document that says they will allow environmental representatives on their land to collect information. Baker said he would not personally sign this agreement, which does not dictate who can or cannot visit your property, give access to final studies, or discuss what should happen if a representative was injured, but said people should seek their own legal advice relevant to their own specific situation.

A businesswoman's break down

Rikki Ramsden, owner of Thornton's Marvel Signs and Designs, broke down the Northern Pass project's impact on tourism and real estate.

"As we know, tourism is the number one industry in New Hampshire," said Ramsden. "In this economy, shouldn't we do everything in our power to preserve that?"

Ramsden argued that the Northern Pass will do anything but, forcing a "massive monolith of metal" across the region's natural beauty, dissuading tourists from visiting, and, ultimately, homeowners from buying.

As property values affected by the Northern Pass go down, other property values in the town will go up to continue to pay for the school and town services. Any increase in the tax base that the Northern Pass project brings will be offset by a decrease in town property values. Ramsden said that there are estimates that as much as 50 percent of Thornton and Campton's valuation could be destroyed by the project that has already seen property values plummet simply with its announcement of a proposed route. Over time, construction jobs would fade, predicted Ramsden, as would demand for local banks and mortgage lenders.

"We can understand rather quickly the domino effect," said Ramsden. "There would be one winner – just one – the conglomerate known as Hydro-Quebec, NSTAR, and Northeast Utilities."

Ramsden echoed the sentiment of previous speakers in saying that one of the best ways to fight the project is to contact elected officials and let your opinion known.

A writer's wisdom

The final speaker of the night was North Country columnist John Harrigan, who has spoken out against the project in newspapers across the state, and encouraged opponents to the project to do the same by writing into their local newspapers and sending letters to their politicians.

"The power and the profit are all going down below," said Harrigan, who resides in Colebrook, nine miles from the Canadian border. "We're not going to get a damn thing from this besides a scar."

New Hampshire creates twice as much power as it needs, he said. There is no demand for the energy in the state, and that, for Harrigan, is of the utmost importance.

"The utilities – their feet should be held to the fire to prove need," said Harrigan. "I don't think they can prove need. I think they can prove greed."

Harrigan hailed Executive Councilor Ray Burton for turning his opinion around about the Northern Pass, and speaking out against it as a project that would not benefit his constituents. Both as a member of the governor's executive council and as a popular politician in his region, Burton's opposition puts a lot of power behind the movement that Harrigan said has a unique ability to pull people together.

"Never – never – in my 63 years on this planet, have I seen people band against a project like this," said Harrigan.

Organizers encouraged those who wish to find out more about the opposition to the Northern Pass project, visit nonorthernpass.org, burynorthernpass.blogspot.com, or livefreeorfry.org.

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