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New Hampton selectmen urged to side against Northern Pass

March 30, 2011
NEW HAMPTON — New Hampton's Board of Selectmen was strongly urged to take a public stand against the proposed Northern Pass transmission line project by a group of residents who voiced their opposition during an informational meeting on the project last week.

A crowd of about 50, including state Sen. Jeanie Forrester and Sean Thomas from U.S. Rep. Frank Guinta's Manchester office, gathered at the New Hampton School for last Wednesday's meeting, which board Chairman Paul Tierney said the selectmen had scheduled in an effort to gather public input on the project before deciding whether to take a public stance.

Neil Irvine, who had asked to be put on the speakers list prior to the meeting, was invited by Tierney to start things off. Clad in a bright orange shirt (the color adopted by the growing opposition movement against Northern Pass), he said that while the people of the North Country may be the ones on the "front line," the Northern Pass proposal is a statewide issue "that will affect us all."

The issue at hand in New Hampton, Irvine explained, is the four local landowners who face the prospect of having portions of their property seized by eminent domain in order to clear a path for the 90-to-135-foot-high towers that would dot the landscape along a new 46-mile-long right-of-way.

The question on his mind, he said, is "how soon before they'll want more land" to clear the way for more towers if the project is approved.

"The two-lane highway becomes a four-lane highway," he added. "We've all seen it."

The permitting and approval process for the project is expected to take up to five years, he said, meaning five years of economic uncertainty for communities along the proposed route. While the construction of the towers would generate temporary jobs, and area businesses might see a brief shot in the arm, he added, the long-term damage to the region's tourism industry in terms of lost revenue and lost jobs would be catastrophic.

In view of the fact that the project offers no direct benefit to the residents of New Hampton or the people of New Hampshire as a whole, Irivine urged the selectmen to "get in front of this issue" by drafting a resolution on behalf of the town stating their opposition to Northern Pass and working to place it on next year's town warrant.

Others who spoke during last week's meeting echoed many of Irvine's sentiments.

Gretchen Draper, who lives within a quarter mile of the proposed route, cited concerns about the project's environmental impact and potential health effects, and said she was also opposed to it on political grounds.

America is "doing things differently now" when it comes to energy, she said, and Northern Pass, which was conceived in late 2008, represents "the same old, same old stuff."

Voicing her concerns about possible drilling and dynamiting near her property during construction of the towers, and about possible contamination of her well, Draper said she wanted to see more current research on the health effects of electro-magnetic fields (or EMF's).

"There's nothing good about this that I can think of," said John Conkling, adding that in his professional opinion as a realtor, there is "no question" that local property values would plummet with the construction of the towers.

Explaining that he touched his paddle to a low-hanging power line while on a canoeing trip in Quebec several years ago and was shocked at the strength of the vibrations he felt, Conkling said he, too, was concerned about potential health effects, and was "totally opposed" to the project.

With discussion turning toward how and when the public can make its thoughts on the project known to federal and state officials, Forrester explained that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is in the process of wrapping up the scoping hearings it will use to draft an Environmental Impact Statement (or EIS) that will help determine whether the project is granted a Presidential permit to cross the U.S. border.

If the Presidential permit is granted, she said, a new round of hearings will take place at the state level before the Public Utilities Commission's Site Evaluation Committee (SEC).

The SEC hearings, she added, are when residents of New Hampton and other affected communities will have an opportunity to speak out.

Adding to Forrester's comments, Conservation Commission member Ralph Kirshner clarified that the EIS will have to be completed and published before any SEC hearings can be scheduled, and that could be as long as three years from now.

Kirshner said he was disappointed in what took place at the March 18 scoping hearing in Plymouth, which he described as a "great pep rally" that provided the DOE with little, if any, useful information.

Explaining that the DOE can base its final decision only on factual data about the project's environmental impact — not on whether the majority of the region's inhabitants support it — he urged anyone submitting a statement to the DOE to tailor their comments accordingly.

Reading a statement explaining the Conservation Commission's decision to oppose the project due to the lack of information on its potential environmental impact, Kirshner said he was also personally opposed because in addition to the 1,200 megawatts of electricity being transmitted into New England, it would also entail sending 1,200 megawatts back into Quebec to offset the province's peak demand costs during the winter months, meaning the construction of more nuclear or fossil fuel-burning power plants throughout the region.

With several other residents voicing their opposition to the project, the selectmen were asked directly whether they were ready to vote on a resolution.

While Tierney said he wouldn't be ready to vote until he had heard from a wider sampling of the town's roughly 2,000 residents, Selectmen Kenneth Mertz and Chip Sawyer said they suspected that the majority of the townspeople would feel the same as those present last week.

The board, Tierney explained, has four options open to it with regard to the Northern Pass project that the townspeople need to consider: a citizens petition stating the town's opposition; further informational meetings; a public hearing on a resolution (which he said would, by law, be non-binding); or a Special Town Meeting for the purpose of voting on a resolution (which he advised would cost the town $3,000 to $3,500).

If the resolution were to pass, Tierney added, the selection could either testify before the SEC once its hearings begin or contact state officials on the town's behalf to express their opposition to the project.

Information on the various options will be posted on the town's Web site, he added, and residents will be invited to write to the board with their choice.

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