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Conservation group tangles up power line

Easements could stop Northern Pass

The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests has unveiled a $2.5 million plan intended to disrupt the Northern Pass project by placing conservation easements on more than 1,800 acres in Coos County.

The easements, on four parcels in Stewartstown and one in Columbia, represent a "blocking action" on a likely route for proposed power lines that would carry electricity from Quebec to the New England power grid, said Jane Difley, the forest society's president.

"What we want to do is make sure that that landscape is never despoiled. Not in the next five years, not in the next 50 years, not in the next 500 years," Difley said yesterday at a news conference.

Northern Pass officials dismissed the forest society's announcement as little more than a fundraising tactic.

"They've tried and failed to stop the project," they said in a statement. "We will continue to work with willing landowners, because New Hampshire and the region need the clean energy, hundreds of jobs and many economic benefits it will deliver to residents for decades to come."

The forest society said it has agreements with four property owners to buy conservation easements on the five parcels, and it wants to raise the $2.5 million by Oct. 31.

"I think we think this project is moving so quickly that there is an urgency to stopping them now, where they are," said Jack Savage, the group's vice president of communications and outreach.

The Northern Pass, a $1.1 billion collaboration between Hydro-Quebec and Northeast Utilities, would deliver hydroelectric power via a 180-mile transmission line from the Canadian border to Deerfield, mostly alongside existing power lines. The northernmost 40 or so miles require buying land or acquiring new rights-of-way.

Backers say the project will create jobs, increase the state's tax base and provide New England with a source of clean, renewable energy. Opposition to the project has come from conservation groups, North Country residents and others because they say, among other things, that it will lower property values and harm tourism by ruining scenic views.

Northern Pass has backed off a previously announced route through the northern end of New Hampshire. Spokesman Martin Murray said in an email that "significant progress" has been made on a new route, and he said it should be announced by the end of the year.

While that route hasn't been revealed, forest society officials said the project has tipped its hand by spending millions to buy property mostly to east of the original path.

But a number of North Country landowners have said they won't sell to the project. And in January, the forest society spent $850,000 to acquire conservation restrictions and a utility right-of-way on land around the Balsams Grand Resort Hotel in Dixville Notch, which it said blocked a potential Northern Pass route.

The easements announced yesterday represent another attempt to block the power lines, targeting what the society said is the Northern Pass's likeliest route based on recent land purchases.

Four of the parcels are in Stewartstown and would form a barrier of conservation-protected land near land already purchased by Northern Pass. The fifth parcel is in Columbia and would form a barricade from the southern end of the Balsams property to the northern end of the Nash Stream State Forest.

Difley said more property owners could come on board in the coming months.

"We will be continuing to talk with land owners about conservation in the North Country," she said.

Savage said the campaign's $2.5 million price tag will cover the cost of the easements, including compensating the landowners, but said a breakdown of the costs wasn't available yesterday.

In their statement, Northern Pass's organizers said they're making good progress in securing a path through northern New Hampshire.

"We have responded to previous concerns about the project by removing proposed alternative routes, and we've made exceptional progress over the course of the last several months in securing a new route in the North Country that has the support of landowners," officials said.

And the project might still make use of eminent domain, even though legislation passed this year sought to bar using eminent domain for the private project, said Will Abbott, the forest society's vice president of policy and land management. Abbott said eminent domain could "in theory" be used to take land even if it's protected by a conservation easement.

"One of the realities is that, if this project were reconfigured in some way by its proposers, that would enable eminent domain to be used. That's certainly a potential that could be out there, and I think we have to acknowledge that," Abbott said.

Murray said Northern Pass "was never predicated on eminent domain" and added, "We don't intend to use eminent domain."

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

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