Eminent domain bill hearing draws crowd, HB 648 retained
March 17, 2011CONCORD — Concern over the Northern Pass Transmission line and fear that the utility company could take easements by eminent domain and ride roughshod over the North Country's landscape drew some 250 of its opponents, primarily from Coös and Grafton Counties, to Representatives Hall on Wednesday morning.
The orderly crowd included some 40 students from Colebrook Academy and the Pittsburg School as well as activists wearing orange vests, hats, armbands, and ribbons. They spent more than three hours listening to the pros and cons of House Bill 648 at a hearing in front of the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee, chaired by Rep. James Garrity of Atkinson who heads the 18-member panel of 13 Republicans and five Democrats.
Panel member Rep. Larry Rappaport, a Republican of Colebrook, is the prime sponsor of the bill, designed to prohibit public utilities from petitioning for permission to take private land or property rights to construct or operate a private, large-scale transmission line. Rappaport credits attorney Bob Baker who now resides n Columbia and practices law in Connecticut for drawing up HB 648.
Baker, he explained, understands the widespread concerns that were sparked in the 2005 landmark Kelo vs. New London, Conn., case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a private developer could take some older privately owned houses near the waterfront by eminent domain for a private economic redevelopment project.
Apparently it is not entirely clear whether or not a N. H. constitutional amendment —readily accepted by voters across the state following the Kelo case — makes it necessary to enact HB 648. Rappaport explained that he believes it is better to be certain than not, given the proposed project.
The Committee voted, 13 to 5, to retain the bill, however, giving time for it to be studied before being brought up again in January 2012.
Rappaport said in a one-on-one conversation on Saturday that the Republican leadership had filled the seats of three absent representatives with temporarily appointed "ringers" to ensure that the bill would go nowhere this session.
He believes, however, that there is a way to bring the bill up again in May, and he intends to learn the parliamentary steps by which he and the bill's co-sponsors can achieve that goal.
Five Committee members voted against retaining the bill: Reps. Rappaport and Remick, both of Coös, as well as Rep. Beatriz Pastor of Lyme, Rep. William Panek of Farmington, and Rep. Naida Kaen of Lee, who served on the Transmission Commission to Develop a Plan for Transmission Capacity Expansion in the North Country.
At Wednesday's session in Representatives Hall, potentially affected landowners and other townspeople of their deep concerns about the size and intrusiveness of transmission towers that would range in height from 80 to 135 feet and on average be placed every 800 feet. Many also said that the uncertainty of not knowing the final proposed route during the lengthy permitting process would be very disruptive to their day-to-day lives and also potentially harm them financially.
Rep. John Tholl of Whitefield testified that the Coös County delegation was opposed to the project at this time.
Dairy farmer John Amey of Pittsburg testified that there is so much opposition to the line that he believes that 90 percent of the land needed for any new right-of-way would have to be taken by eminent domain, which would be a wrenching experience for each affected family.
District 2 Senator Jeanie Forrester of Meredith read a statement in opposition to the Northern Pass project and in favor of HB 648.
Franklin Mayor Kenneth Merrifield spoke in favor of the project, citing both the short- and long-term economic benefits the two DC-to-AC converter facilities would bring to his city. Some business interests asked that the process in which the $1.1 billion project would be vetted under the Environmental Impact Statement process be allowed to move forward to see what, if any, benefits the state might potentially reap. A construction union spokesman pointed out that his industry is deep in the doldrums and that a 180-mile transmission line project would provide hundreds of good-paying jobs.
Background information on the role of the N. H. Public Utilities Commission was provided by both its general counsel Anne Ross and its senior regional policy advisor Mike Harrington.
Government Relations representative Donna Gamache of Public Service of New Hampshire spoke in opposition to the bill, as did Donald Pfundstein of Gallagher, Callahan & Gartrell, formerly legal counsel to the state Senate.
The Committee also voted, 14 to 4, to retain HB 649 of which Rep. Rick Ladd of Haverhill is the prime sponsor. Also in opposition to the Northern Pass, HB 649 would require a regional planning commission to complete a fact-finding impact study paid for by the developers of high-voltage transmission line projects; prohibit a public utility from taking private property for a private large-scale transmission line; and require any agreement to balance the interests of the ratepayers and the developer.