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Northern Pass opponents plan lengthy fight, support "no-sell" landowners

November 02, 2011
COLEBROOK — More than 100 opponents of the proposed 140-mile-long Northern Pass high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) transmission line that would run on 80- to 135-foot-tall towers from the Canadian border in Pittsburg south to Franklin gathered on Saturday evening in the elementary school cafeteria.

Most of those on hand at the meeting — sponsored by the Power Line Education Fund — were from the towns where there is now no existing right-of-way controlled by Public Service of New Hampshire. PSNH is a subsidiary of Northeast Utilities that is seeking permits to build the powerline with NStar, with which it hopes to merge, to bring HydroQuebec power from Canada.

Nearly everyone on hand had come to an opponents' meeting held in the same venue a year ago.

Not everyone was local: a young couple drove up from Derry, despite their worries about a predicted snowstorm.

Bob Baker, an attorney who lives in Columbia, said, "We've come a long way since we first held a meeting here a year ago."

Baker displayed several maps of what volunteers who are tracking recent land sales believe is the Northern Pass' new route. Northern Pass abandoned its original "preferred route" and announced some months ago that it would seek a new route that would not require the use of eminent domain. The company took this step after it became abundantly clear at several public hearings — required by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) — that its original preferred route was unacceptable to the affected communities. PSNH CEO Gary Long has said the new route could be announced by year's end.

Baker projected maps of Clarksville-Pittsburg, Stewartstown, Colebrook, Columbia, and Dixville onto a screen, indicating that local volunteer deed researchers and interviewers believe the new route is primarily about three miles east of the earlier one.

How the line is to be routed east through Pittsburg remains unclear, with several landowners unwilling to sell and conservation lands serving has roadblocks.

Both Lynne Placey, a widow who teaches piano lessons and lives on her Social Security payments along with selling stumpage on more than one parcel, and Bill Weir, who has grown his family's Christmas tree farm in Colebrook into a substantial operation, came to the microphone to explain why they have refused to sell tracts of land on which they do not live to Northern Pass.

Both love and feel an obligation to act as stewards to the land that Northern Pass would like to buy, even though, as Baker put it, Northern Pass is "spending money like drunken sailors."

Placey said she was offered half-a-million dollars for 114 acres, with a $50,000 down payment — a sum she could readily use as a nest egg.

"I agreed to think about the offer," she said, "But in my heart of hearts, I knew I couldn't accept it. It was my husband's legacy, and his father's before that. I owe a responsibility to our neighbors, to our town, our county, and our state. I believe the project is wrong, that it won't do anything for our state."

Weir said the panoramic view from his "back farm" or "sugar place" includes three states and Canada. But the lot supplies mature hardwood his family's three outdoor furnaces and will for the next 100 years, Weir explained. "It is not for sale," he said. "Ninety-nine percent of the people are against the project."

Don Bilodeau of Clarksville also identified himself as a "no-sell" opponent, and several others also stood up to say they been offered money to sell.

Northern Pass is putting relatively small deposits down for purchase and sales agreements under the names "Properties. Inc." and "Renewable Properties, Inc.," Baker said. These outfits are offering between $2,000 and $6,000 an acre — two, three or four times what it is worth, he said. Baker urged landowners to seek legal advice before signing anything, and to meet prospective buyers at a lawyer's office or public venue, accompanied by another person.

Rick Samson of Stewartstown recalled that a year ago residents of the northern towns had been told that the 1,200-megawatt transmission line was a "done deal." He did not point out that it was former state senator and state representative Fred King of Colebrook, now county treasurer, who had articulated that view. As a fourth-generation New Hampshire native he could attribute his willingness to fight Northern Pass to the state's feeling of independence, but, he said, "It all started at Plymouth Rock."

Will Abbott, policy director of the Society for the Protection of N. H. Forests, said that his house in Holderness is within 300 yards of an existing PSNH ROW. He, in essence, said that SPNHF had just begun to fight and had retained Thomas Masland and Karen Levchuk of the law firm of Ransmeier and Spellman of Concord to research their understanding of the scope of the eminent domain powers granted under state law and the state Constitution. SPNHF's property, The Rocks in Bethlehem, granted PSNH a 1.3-mile easement in 1947, Abbott explained. The nonprofit questions whether using this ROW for steel towers that could be more than twice the height of the poles now dotting the property would fall under the "reasonable use doctrine." He added that ratepayers had paid for the ROW, its clearing, and putting up the transmission line poles.

Rep. Larry Rappaport, whose bill HB 648 to prohibit eminent domain takings for private companies putting in "elective" electric transmission lines was held up in the Senate for further study over the summer, explained that the 2012 hearings would be crucial to the fight. HB 648 passed the House overwhelmingly by a 317 to 51 vote, Rappaport said.

Baker urged opponents to write senators from across the state, noting that Sen. John Gallus of Berlin already agrees with the opponents' position. He reminded those in the cafeteria that the northern towns were "the tip of the spear" and that if Northern Pass can't go though these communities, it can't reach the rest of the state.

Baker said that opponents were supported were supported by many organizations: Conservation Law Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, Appalachian Mountain Club, New England Power Generators, and SPNHF. He praised Valerie Herres of Lancaster for her almost daily e-mail bulletins as Bill Schomberg of Columbia for his extensive travels collecting information to fight the project.

Columnist John Harrigan of Colebrook emphasized that this is not a NIMBY — not in my backyard — issue. "It's everyone's backyard," he said. "It's turning neighbor against neighbor." Residents are talking of boycotting businesses whose owners sell to Northern Pass or other forms of retaliation. "We're all in this together," Harrigan said. "Eminent domain for private gain is wrong; it's all about greed." Flooding Canada's boreal forest to generate hydropower, he said, destroys trees that otherwise would continue to act as a carbon sink. And, he continued, the three years of high-paid construction jobs, much touted by Northern Pass, would go to out-of-staters, leaving locals with only highway flagging jobs and "flipping burgers and bedsheets." Harrigan said, "I'm proud to be a New Hampshire guy," and don't want to see the Granite State become a conduit or sewer pipe for electricity we don't need."

Martin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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