Eminent domain bill hearing packs Rep.'s Hall



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Salmon Press and Union Leader columnist and outdoorsman John Harrigan of Colebrook brought his well-thumbed copy of Robert E. Pike’s “Spiked Boots” to the State House on Thursday to support his vehement opposition to the Northern Pass Transmission (NPT) line project which would slice through some of Coös County’s backcountry. (click for larger version)
May 25, 2011
CONCORD — Action on House Bill 648 to amend the state's eminent domain law to prohibit takings of private land for electrical transmission lines except for projects directed to "system reliability" began its journey through the 24-member state Senate last week.

Opponents of the proposed $1.1 billion Northern Pass Transmission (NPT) line project to bring 1,200-megwatts of low-carbon electric power from Hydro-Quebec across the Canadian border at Pittsburg south to Franklin and Deerfield turned out in droves for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on HB 648 on Thursday afternoon.

Representative's Hall in the State House was more than three-quarters filled with NPT opponents wearing hunter orange vests, hats, and scarves.

Fifty or more International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) wore lime-green T-shirts to draw attention to their opposition to HB 648, based on their desire to secure much-needed jobs that would be created by the proposed Northern Pass project. Most union members sat together on the east side of the cavernous 400-seat room, and many had earlier demonstrated outside at a State House entrance.

The Building Trades Council rented a commercial bus to allow IBEW members to park at its Concord headquarters and then ride to the State House. Some project opponents who rode a school bus for three hours from the North Country spoke resentfully of the comfort differential.

District 2 Senator John Gallus said in an interview in his first-floor State House office shortly before the 1:15 p.m. hearing began that he supports passage of HB648.

"I'm a realtor," Gallus explained. "I'm a strong believer in a bundle of private property rights." Asked how he sees this bill could affect the oft-discussed and much-desired Coös Loop project that would allow more renewable electricity to be exported from the North Country, potentially spurring construction of more wind farms, Gallus replied, "I don't know how it plays out. There could be unintended consequences, but utilities should have to negotiate with landowners. Although of course I don't know the long-term effects of HB 648, I have a strong feeling for private property rights."

Co-sponsors spoke in favor of the bill: District 2 Senator Jeanie Forrester of Meredith; and Coös 2 Reps. John Tholl of Whitefield and Rep. Bill Remick of Lancaster plus Grafton 5 Rep. Rick Ladd of Haverhill.

"This is about protecting property rights," Forrester read in a prepared statement. "Property owners should have the right to decide and should not be forced to accept a private project for the private gain of others that would forever negatively impact their lives and property values."

A press packet was distributed that included information about organizations, like the IBEW, that see the proposed Northern Pass project as an opportunity to create good-paying in-state construction jobs and for the state to be seen as business-friendly.

Robin Comstock, president of the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, wrote a letter to support the project.

"HB 648 is of significant concern for many New Hampshire businesses," Comstock wrote. "This legislation attempts to alter a long-standing and established process for reviewing these types of complex energy development projects for the sole purpose of preventing the Northern Pass project."

Tom Thomson, a tree farmer of Orford, was one of many speakers who opposed the project. "I draw the line in the sand when it comes to eminent domain," Thomson said, noting that he spoke for his family interests as well as on behalf of the New Hampshire Timberland Owners (NHTOA). "New Hampshire will become a conduit for Hydro-Quebec to ship a commodity —electricity — to Connecticut and New York and with all the profits going back to Canada. That's not a good deal for New Hampshire," he said.

HB 648 prime sponsor Rep. Larry Rappaport of Colebrook was very visible, greeting and encouraging supporters of the restrictive legislation that, he believes, clarifies existing language in the state's constitution. Rappaport had already conveyed his views — and that of many other opponents — in a carefully crafted letter sent earlier to all senators.

N.H. Public Utilities Commission (PUC) senior policy advisor Michael Harrington testified that the determining whether a transmission project is needed for "system reliability" would be very complex. It's an "incredibly complicated assessment to make and is not really defined," the former PUC commissioner said.

Harrington emphasized that New Hampshire is part of a regional electrical system, and Independent System Operator-New England (ISO-NE) manages the grid.

Public Service of New Hampshire (PSNH) issued a prepared statement: "While PSNH is concerned about the short-term impact of HB 648 on the Northern Pass, it is far more concerned about the long-term impacts this bill could have on its ability to provide cost-effective electricity and maintain efficient operations of the state's electrical system."

District 5 Senator Matthew Houde of Plainfield chairs the Judiciary Committee. His district includes the City of Franklin that is eager for the economic boost that building and maintaining a $250,000 Northern Pass converter station would provide. The other three members are: vice chairman Sen. Sharon Carson of Londonderry; Sen. Fenton Groen of Rochester; and Sen. Jim Luther of Hollis.

The Committee took no immediate action on HB 648.

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