Is Northern Pass looking at state land?
An executive councilor and state senator believe the Northern Pass is going to offer the state money to run a portion of its transmission line along Route 3 in northern New Hampshire to get around conservation land blocking its path.
The conserved land in Clarskville is owned by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, which opposes Northern Pass. It’s one of several conservation easements the group has bought in an effort to “thwart” the project.
At issue is a section of Route 3 that runs across the 2,100-acre Washburn Family Forest, although the area in question is a small piece of the lot. If Northern Pass is able to buy an easement from the state for the roadway, it can connect properties it owns on either side of the forest.
Executive Councilor Ray Burton, a Bath Republican, raised the issue yesterday at the breakfast portion of the Executive Council meeting. Burton asked state transportation Commissioner Christopher Clement whether he has “anything on his desk” from Northern Pass seeking to cross Route 3 in Pittsburg or Clarksville.
“Personally, I hope there’s not,” Burton said.
Clement said he hadn’t received any formal request from Northern Pass but added, “It’s coming, I know it’s coming.” Then Clement said, “We will at some point, I suspect.”
Asked after the meeting to elaborate on his statement, Clement declined. When pressed, Clement said any large project has the potential to interact with the state Department of Transportation because the department owns so much state land.
Martin Murray, spokesman for Northern Pass, declined to say yesterday whether the project was contemplating seeking an easement on Route 3 from the state.
“Consistent with other energy projects, requests for any necessary state approvals related to the Northern Pass will be made as part of the Site Evaluation Committee process,” Murray said, referring to the state’s review of the project.
According to Bill Boynton, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, an easement request would have to be filed with his agency, face legislative screening and ultimately go to the governor and executive council.
Murray also declined to say yesterday when Northern Pass would unveil its proposed route. It has said it would make that information public by the end of 2012, but hasn’t.
Sen. Jeanie Forrester, a Meredith Republican who has been following the Northern Pass project closely, shares Burton’s concern about Route 3.
She’s been tracking Northern Pass’s land purchases on a map in an effort to determine the project’s proposed route. Forrester has also mapped the strategically placed conservation easements secured by the forest society.
“As much as Northern Pass likes to say they have a route, there are three or four places they have to get through, and one is Route 3,” she said. “I suspect they’ll probably offer, given the state of our economy and our (state) budget, big bucks to purchase an easement. I think that is their only option.”
But, she added, clearing the Route 3 hurdle would still leave the project with the other forest society blocks.
Forrester also said she expects Northern Pass will offer to bury the transmission lines in that area to sweeten its offer to the state – even though project officials have said burying the lines is prohibitively expensive.
Murray declined to say whether the project is reconsidering its position on burying the lines.
A spokesman for Gov. Maggie Hassan said after the meeting that the governor’s office has not been asked by Northern Pass officials about an easement along Route 3. Spokesman Marc Goldberg also reiterated Hassan’s conditions for supporting the project.
“Gov. Hassan believes that we must protect the scenic views of the North Country and has made it clear that she opposes the first Northern Pass proposal,” Goldberg said in an email. The first proposed route was east of the one emerging now and drew so much criticism that project officials offered to redraw their map.
“The Governor feels Northern Pass should listen to the concerns of the potentially affected communities,” Goldberg wrote, “and that burying power lines would be a more appropriate approach. But we have not heard from project officials about the possibility that any new proposal might seek to utilize state roads or lands, nor do we have information about what such an approach would mean for the state financially.”
Announced in October 2010, Northern Pass is a partnership among Northeast Utilities, Public Service of New Hampshire and Hydro-Quebec to bring hydropower from Canada to the New England energy grid.
The proposed project has faced the most opposition in the North Country where it must clear a new 40-mile right of way for transmission lines. The lines south of Groveton would run within PSNH’s existing transmission corridors.
Jack Savage, spokesman for the forest society, said he would not be surprised if Northern Pass pursues an easement on Route 3.
He said staff visited the society’s Clarskville property on Route 3 a year ago and discovered that someone had placed surveying ribbons across the property, in a line matching the route Northern Pass is developing.
Savage said the society does not know who put the ribbons on the land but said he believes Northern Pass did not know the land along Route 3 was owned by the forest society when it began buying property for its transmission lines.
If Northern Pass is interested in crossing the distance via a state-owned road, Savage believes the public should know now, not at the end of a permitting process.
“We want to make sure that Northern Pass isn’t doing anything behind closed doors with state officials to enable the compromise of existing conserved lands, such as the Washburn Family Forest,” Savage said.
(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323,
firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)