Local realtors gather to learn about Northern Pass
May 11, 2011MEREDITH — For Luann Flood and her fellow members of the Lakes Region Board of Realtors, staying informed on what goes on within their communities is about more than ensuring commissions.
As a longtime resident of Ashland who loves the area and has seen her children pass through the local school system, Flood (co-owner of Noseworthy Real Estate, and currently President of the Board) says that she considers herself — and her colleagues — part of the community, and that her investment in its future goes far beyond dollars and cents.
With that in mind, members of the board gathered at the Chase House in Meredith last week in an effort to learn more about one of the major issues facing the region — the Northern Pass project.
With opposition to the controversial project continuing to grow, and the facts often obscured by misinformation and the high emotions among those opposed, Flood invited representatives from Northern Pass LLC to the board's meeting last week — along with former state Sen. Deb Reynolds and Will Abbott of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, two staunch opponents — in hopes of obtaining accurate information about what the project would entail, and what impact it might have on the North Country and the Pemi-Baker region.
Abbott, who works with the Forest Society's Policy division and manages 50,000 acres of its timberland holdings in the North Country, said his organization had three major concerns about the Northern Pass project, which proposes to bring 1,200 megawatts of hydro-electric power generated in Quebec into New England along a 180-mile-long network of transmission lines stretching from the Canadian border in Pittsburg to a converter terminal in Franklin, and then to a substation in Deerfield for distribution along the grid.
Chief among the Forest Society's concerns, Abbott said, is the potential visual impact of the towers, which could stand as high as 135 feet, and could destroy the natural beauty that "makes New Hampshire New Hampshire" in the Society's view.
Also cited by the Society as a cause for concern, he explained, is the apparent lack of any discernible benefit for the people of New Hampshire.
Thirdly, he said, the Forest Society is gravely concerned about the detrimental effect the construction of 40 miles of new right-of-way near the Canadian border could have on the White Mountain National Forest.
Abbott concluded his remarks by saying that the Forest Society — many of whose members are landowners — is also concerned about the possible seizure of private property through eminent domain, which it feels should only be used when "significant public benefit" can be demonstrated.
Reynolds, a real estate attorney by trade, said she was "very, very deeply opposed" to the Northern Pass project, which she felt would have a profound negative impact on communities that have already been hit hard financially, and are about to be burdened even further by the cuts included in the proposed state budget.
Arguing that the project would "chill" real estate sales along the 180-mile Northern Pass corridor, Reynolds pointed out that realtors have already reported instances of closings being cancelled by nervous buyers who backed out at the last minute.
Ultimately, Reynolds said, Northern Pass is "not in the best interests of the people of the state of New Hampshire."
Marie van Luling, Vice President of Communications for Public Service of New Hampshire — a subsidiary of Northeast Utilities, Hydro-Quebec's partner in the Northern Pass proposal — said that PSNH has always been involved in developing energy policy, which can sometimes be a "balancing act" between what's best for the larger community and what's best for rate payers.
Van Luling re-iterated PSNH's claim that the project will create up to 1,200 jobs, but admitted that most of them will be temporary positions, lasting up to three years during the construction phase.
Northern Pass, she said, also promises to generate $25 million in new tax revenue, and the increased availability of electricity could have an impact of as much as $200 million to $300 million on rates throughout New England.
Addressing the controversial alternate routes that were proposed when the project first came forward — one of which would have passed through several key parcels of conservation land in Plymouth — van Luling admitted that because Northern Pass LLC was required by law to submit alternate routes along with its "preferred" route, "our process was more important than our common sense" in that instance.
The alternate routes have now been withdrawn, she said, and Northern Pass officials are re-focusing their efforts on working with landowners along the "top 40" miles of new right-of-way proposed near the Canadian border to ensure that the impact on their properties is as minimal as possible.
The 135-foot towers that have caused a good deal of controversy, van Luling said, will not exist at all locations along the route — especially not in the White Mountain National Forest, where she said shorter lattice towers or monopoles designed to resemble leafless trees are possible alternatives.
Northern Pass, she added, has also been putting together a study into the feasibility of expanding Broadband access into the North Country along the new lines in order to encourage economic development.
Addressing concerns about how the project might affect local alternative energy providers like Bridgewater Power, van Luling explained that the electricity transported along the Northern Pass lines would not be eligible under state law for renewable energy credits, and it would therefore still be necessary to encourage the development of in-state energy sources.
Among the concerns raised during the question-and-answer session was whether local contractors would have the technical skills needed to install the towers, and whether such small companies would be able to post the required bonds.
Donna Gamache, Director of Governmental Affairs at PSNH, explained that Northern Pass officials have already talked with unions such as the IBEW, which have agreed to put up the bonds and hire local labor whenever possible as subcontractors for the actual construction.
Questioning the need for the Northern Pass, Tom Mullen — the developer behind the Owl's Nest resort in Campton — stepped forward to point out that the state of New Hampshire currently has 65 different sources of electric generation, and produces more power than it needs already.
Commenting that realtors are ethically and legally obligated to disclose to potential buyers the fact that Northern Pass lines may pass near their properties, Mullen said that as a result, his staff at the Owl's Nest have been unable to sell any property within the past eight months.
Disagreeing with Mullen's claim that the project is not necessary, van Luling said that some portion of the power will come to New Hampshire.
With facilities such as the Vermont Yankee and Plymouth, Mass. nuclear power plants in danger of being taken offline due to safety concerns, she said, there are roughly 14,000 megawatts of available electric power at risk throughout New England in the long term.
In that big-picture view, she added, "the need becomes much more credible."
The average consumer's increasing reliance on electronic devices, she said, is also driving up usage throughout New England.
Mullen argued, however, that the people of New Hampshire should not be forced to serve as a conduit for supplying power to surrounding states whose residents haven't "bitten the bullet" and learned to conserve electricity.
"It's not our job to make sure that the people of Massachusetts have enough power," he said to a burst of applause from the audience.
Picking up on van Luling's ealier statement that Northern Pass is working with North Country landowners, an audience member asked whether that would mean that landowners along the corridor will be allowed to choose which type of tower they'd like to see on their property.
Gamache replied that it would depend on engineering concerns and the topography of the property in question.
As the state's largest utility company (it serves roughly 70 percent of New Hampshire's communities), she added, PSNH is well ware that it will be "in our best advantage" to mitigate the impact of the towers wherever possible.
With a number of other issues rising to the forefront during the discussion, including why the existing DC lines along the corridor cannot be used and why the new lines cannot be buried (too difficult and expensive given the terrain in the North Country, according to van Luling), Abbott suggested that in view of the intense opposition, the time may have come for Northern Pass to abandon its initial proposal and consider a "plan B."
The question people need to ask themselves, Reynolds said, is "Why is this good for the people of New Hampshire?"
Van Luling acknowledged that Northern Pass has a lot of work ahead of it in winning over the public, but said that PSNH and its partners will be working to put the right information out there in the near future.
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