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Gauging support for Northern Pass isn’t easy

Gov. John Lynch and incoming governor Maggie Hassan have said they’ll back the proposed 180-mile Northern Pass hydro-power line from Canada only if the local communities do.

“By local communities, I mean the communities impacted by it,” Lynch said in a recent interview with Monitor editors. “If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. And if that means (Public Service of New Hampshire) needs to re-look at the economics of burying the lines, they may need to do that. But I don’t think it should be a race of who can buy the most land at the quickest pace.”

What Lynch and Hassan haven’t said, though, is how they’ll gauge community support.

Some have suggested land sales are a good indication – of opposition. Of the 45 properties or easements Northern Pass has bought for its North Country route, 31 were sold by people living outside the state or the immediate area.

Meanwhile, a handful of local landowners are selling conservation easements to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forest to block the project. And two years ago, more than 30 towns voted to oppose the project at town meetings.

Northern Pass proponents, meanwhile, argue that there are many supporters, even in the North Country, who are unwilling to speak out for fear of retaliation in their small towns.

“When I say I’m in favor of it, they say they’re not for it because it’s going to ruin the views,” said Norman Cloutier. 55, of Columbia. “But some people are quiet for fear of intimidation.”

Supporters also point to the three job fairs Northern Pass held in the North Country this year: More than 200 people attended.

One of them was North Country native Donald Dotsie, 48, of Columbia. His trucking company likely won’t get work from the project, he said, but he hopes his contractor friends will.

Dotsie also prefers the idea of importing energy from Canada than from Iraq or Venezuela.

“We’ve got no work up here,” Dotsie said. “Until someone has an idea for friendlier, cheaper electricity, I say, ‘Let them come down through. Let’s work with them.’ ”

Hassan visited the North Country on Thursday and, through her spokesman, laid out her expectation of project officials.

“She opposed the first Northern Pass proposal, in part because of the concerns she heard from people in the region,” Marc Goldberg wrote. “We are waiting to see the second proposal, and she will do what she has done in the past and talk to a broad range of people from across the region and the state. It is her hope that the developers of this project are doing the same kind of listening and that their next proposal will have responded to the concerns raised.”

Lynch was more pointed in his meeting with the Monitor.

“If PSNH or the forest society goes in and they offer an obscene amount of money to buy an extra half acre because that’s where the transmission line goes, that should not be how this decision is made,” he said. “If (local communities) don’t buy into this and they become convinced that this is going to negatively impact them and negatively impact the travel and tourism . . . then I don’t think it should go through.”

Facing opposition

Northern Pass, a $1.1 billion plan to pipe hydro-power from Canada, through New Hampshire and into the New England energy grid, was supposed to be further along by now.

The project’s partners – Hydro-Quebec, Northeast Utilities and PSNH – have faced particular opposition in the northernmost part of the state. That’s because that’s the area along the 180-mile route that will require new clearings.

The rest of the line, which would pass through Concord and the towns around it, will run alongside existing PSNH power lines.

Northern Pass dropped an early North Country route last year because of opposition and has delayed several times the unveiling of a new route as it tries to acquire the land it needs.

Project officials, who have spent nearly $21 million so far on North Country property purchases according to land records, have said they’ll produce their new route by year’s end.

Since May 2011, the project has bought 45 parcels or easements. Less than a third of those sellers came from the towns along the route, according to land records. Mike Skelton, a Northern Pass spokesman, said it’s a mistake to draw conclusions from that.

“We believe the premise of your question is flawed,” Skelton wrote in an email Friday responding to a Monitor inquiry. “Land acquisition and siting the project are separate and distinct from building community support. You also need to complete step one (siting the project) before moving on to step two (community support).”

Many of the sellers have declined to comment in the months the Monitor has tried to reach them.

A California woman who told the Monitor months ago that she’d never sell the 300-plus acres she inherited from her father sold this fall: Northern Pass paid her $4.12 million, according to the tax stamp on a deed filed in October.

The woman declined comment yesterday by email, saying she had a death in the family and was preparing for the holidays.

One Stewartstown woman who sold her land for $2 million this summer has relocated to the Lakes Region. She declined comment when reached yesterday.

A North Country family that has previously put much of their land in conservation sold Northern Pass some critical parcels in Colebrook and Clarksville for $1.4 million a year ago.

They have also declined comment.

Scott Mason, a Stratford farmer who has been working for Northern Pass as a “public affairs specialist” said project opponents have made it very uncomfortable for locals who sell or otherwise support the line.

“Until people know that this project will definitely come, you aren’t going to see people standing in line to support this,” Mason said. “Because of the activities of the opposition, they really do not want to go on record as saying they support it.”

Skelton said that’s wrong.

“It is unfortunate and unfair to attempt to alienate those who have sold their own, private land,” he wrote. “Private property rights are an important issue and willing sellers do not deserve to be denigrated based on their mailing address.”

Speaking up

Not everyone is staying silent.

Richard and Pauline Thibeault of Pittsburg and another family member sold Northern Pass 50 of their 550 acres in Pittsburg for $750,000 in August. Richard Thibeault, 52, grew up on the land and plans to stay there.

He said if he and his wife don’t see the lines from their home, they’ll certainly see them as they drive around town. The idea of high-power transmission lines don’t both him because he was president of a Vermont snowmobile club that traveled under a similar power line on that side of the border.

“When it first happened, people said it was a horrible thing,” Richard Thibeault said. “I’m not saying it’s pretty, but after a while, people don’t even see it. It’s people’s favorite trail now.”

He and his wife farmed their land, just as his father and his grandfather did. When times were tight, they didn’t see neighbors stopping by to make sure they were making it, he said.

So he’s not hesitant to speak up for his property rights now. “You own something, and you have a right to do what you want with it,” he said.

Mason, Northern Pass’s local public relations agent, hears from people on both sides of the project. Critics say he was hired so Northern Pass could have a local knocking on property owners’ doors.

Mason, a former Stratford selectman, said it’s not been hard for him to support the project. Most persuasive, he said, are the taxes local communities will realize if the line comes through their borders.

“My worst day as selectman was the day a local fella came in after his taxes had gone up,” Mason said. “Basically he laid out whether he was going to pay his taxes, buy food, keep his medicine going or heat his house.”

Northern Pass has made it easy for anyone interested to see what kind of tax break their town will get by posting the projected revenue on the project website, northernpass.us.

According to the site, Colebrook would see its tax rate drop $1.40 per $1,000 of assessed value. In Clarksville, the drop would be $2, according to the site.

“When this project comes through, there’s going to be a lot of money,” Mason said. “There will be a huge influx of money into these communities. It’s not a permanent solution, but at this time, money is hard to come by.”

Cloutier of Columbia left the Northern Pass job fair not sure his road construction company would get much work out of the project. He was a Northern Pass supporter before he went – and not only because Northern Pass has agreed to buy an easement on property he owns in Clarksville if the project goes through.

“I support it because of the income to the communities as far as taxes,” Cloutier said. “And I think Northern Pass is willing to work with communities. But what got me, was that a lot of communities didn’t even want to speak to them.”

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