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Will Northern Pass harm home sales?



Laste modified: Sunday, July 24, 2011
Mike Gagne, a Realtor for the Bean Group, said the high-voltage power lines proposed by Northern Pass rarely come up when he's showing property in Franklin. And in one case, the proposed project was a deal-maker.

He said a buyer bought a large property, in part, because the Northern Pass project is projected to reduce Franklin's property taxes by 44 percent. But go north, and it can be a different story.

One Realtor in Coos County said the Northern Pass hasn't stalled or affected her sales. Another Coos County Realtor said large landowners are taking property off the market for fear the proposed high-voltage lines and tall towers will drop sale prices.

'It comes up just about every day,' said the Realtor, who asked not to be named because the Northern Pass project is so controversial in Coos County. 'There is a house on the proposed route that was reasonably priced and was not a fixer-upper. When I showed it and they saw on the map that it was on a proposed route, they walked away.'

So, do 135-foot transmission towers and high-voltage power lines affect property sales or not? In the end, no, experts say. But the perception that they do, especially before the line is built, is a resounding yes.

Officials with Northern Pass, a $1.2 billion proposal to bring hydro-power from Canada through New Hampshire on high-voltage lines, point to property sales along existing lines elsewhere that show sale prices haven't dropped significantly.

'What we believe has been demonstrated . . . is that the impact of a (transmission) line in a particular area is not really as negative as the opponents say it will be,' said Martin Murray, Northern Pass spokesman. That conclusion, he said, is based on several real estate market studies, including one Northern Pass commissioned this year.

In that study, released in May, Brian Underwood of B.C. Underwood in Rye studied eight properties on or next to existing high-voltage power lines in two towns, Deerfield and Littleton. None of the property values, Underwood concluded, had been adversely affected by the existing lines.

Underwood began by pulling property tax cards for all the properties in those two towns that are on or near the existing lines. He identified about 150 properties, he said. Underwood then narrowed the study group to just those properties that had been sold or improved with a house or other upgrade within the last 10 years. Improvements, Underwood said, indicate the owners felt the property held enough value to justify further investment.

That brought Underwood's list to eight, four in each town. He did not include foreclosures or other distress sales or property that was sold within families. And Underwood did not include any properties that didn't sell because of the lines. He said he's not even sure that information could be determined. But his analysis of sales prices was bolstered by interviews he did with sellers and buyers, he said.

In one case, a Deerfield woman told Underwood she liked being near the power line because the corridor gave her space to cross-country ski, watch wildlife and ride snowmobiles.

'If you look at the historic evidence, and even market evidence in our own state, nothing suggests that after the line is built there is going to be any significant adverse effect on property values,' Underwood said last week.

'No impact'

Russ Thibeault of Applied Economic Research in Laconia concluded the same thing in May after evaluating about 50 studies done in the last 10 years on the effect of high-voltage transmission lines on real estate values. He was paid by Northern Pass for his work.

'Many of the studies find no impact, and those that do find an impact generally find the impact is under 10 percent and that it diminishes quickly as distance from the transmission corridor increases,' Thibeault wrote in his report.

But both Underwood and Thibeault acknowledged those findings are grossly different than the public's perception.

Quoting a study done in 2009 by James Chalmers for The Appraisal Journal, Thibeault wrote: 'The general interpretation is that, even though transmission line issues have been a prominent concern in most of the communities studied . . . the presence of transmission lines is apparently not given sufficient weight by buyers and sellers of real estate to have any consistent, material effect on property values.'

Chalmers found specifically that the vast majority of those who had negative feelings about power lines said their decision to buy and the price they paid were not affected by the lines.

Underwood said the trepidation among buyers and sellers of property along the proposed Northern Pass route is understandable. 'I think the unknown, particularly in the North Country, may result in both buyers and sellers being more hesitant to do anything until they are confident of the project's location and what, if any, impact it may have on their property,' Underwood said.

Proposed rule

This difference between perception and the findings of real estate studies, however, is unlikely to reassure Realtors and property owners along the proposed Northern Pass route.

Last week, Joe Drinon, who owns land along a proposed route in Chichester, asked the New Hampshire Real Estate Commission to require all Realtors to tell potential buyers when a property they are considering sits on or near the proposed route. Drinon could not be reached after the meeting, but Beth Edes, executive director of the commission, said commission members declined to issue the blanket order Drinon requested.

The New Hampshire Association of Realtors does not believe the state's real estate law requires agents to disclose the Northern Pass project to potential buyers. Several Realtors said they do, especially those in the North Country where anti-Northern Pass signs alert buyers to the proposed project.

Edes told Drinon his request was too broad and suggested he return with a specific example or property for the commission to consider. She said, by way of example, that disclosure may be appropriate for a property sitting on the proposed route or within a certain number of feet of a proposed route. But it is not enough to simply ask that buyers of any property within an undetermined distance be told about the project.

The Coos County Realtor who asked not to be identified said Northern Pass has been particularly difficult to work around because project officials have not settled on a proposed route. While the proposed transmission lines would run along existing rights of way in most of the state, they would require about 40 miles of new clearing in the North Country.

'It's looming out there,' she said. 'It's hard to reassure sellers because we don't know what is going to happen.'

She said she lost a listing and a sale when a couple who were planning to sell their house and buy a new one learned their existing home was on the proposed route. They backed out for fear they'd be unable to sell their current home if they bought the new one.

'You have this big company that is upending people's lives, and they haven't even broken ground,' she said.

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323 or at atimmins@cmonitor.com.)