×

Northern Pass communities want a say in project’s permitting process

  • Power lines stretch north from Mary Lee's Northfield home into Salisbury, June 16, 2011. A band of woods obstructs the view from her house to the power lines that run north to south. Lee fears she will lose that buffer if the Northern Pass is built. (Alexander Cohn/ Monitor staff)



Monitor staff
Thursday, January 12, 2017

Eighteen municipalities on the proposed Northern Pass route are arguing that no one but them has the authority to permit the construction of electric transmission lines along their roads.

They’re challenging what they said is an incorrect assumption by Northern Pass attorneys that state authority over energy projects trumps local control.

Northern Pass hasn’t applied for any local permits, according to the petition, which was signed by Concord, Pembroke, Deerfield and 15 other communities along the 192-mile proposed route from Canada.

At a Site Evaluation Committee hearing Thursday, the petitioners sought an answer as to how committee members would handle the two competing interpretations of state laws. Because the issue also affects other cases beyond Northern Pass, they argued that it should be broken out from the regular process and resolved more quickly.

“This is a decision that cuts across every docket that the SEC would consider regarding electric lines,” said Amy Manzelli, an attorney representing one of the petitioners, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. “It’s a legal question that is independent of the specific facts of any case.”

But in a 7-1 vote Thursday, the committee dismissed the petitioners’ plea, effectively punting the decision to subcommittees working on specific projects. The vote was an affirmation of the Northern Pass attorneys’ complaint that the creation of a separate docket would be improper procedure.

The committee chairman, Martin Honigberg, said it “seems like bad administrative law” to branch off on a new process when one is already in place.

“There are all kinds of issues that are present in Northern Pass that the parties want to get addressed,” he said. “I fully expect that if we were to take this up – even if we referred it to the Northern Pass subcommittee and said, ‘Deal with this right away’ – there would be a follow-on of two, three, four, five other similar petitions, somehow with a satellite schedule and separate procedures necessary.”

The one dissenting SEC member, attorney Patty Weathersby, said she understood that the process could become cumbersome, but otherwise the question would remain unclear “for many months to come.”

“That’s what happens in litigation all the time,” Honigberg replied.

Weathersby said an committee subcommittee would likely consider the same question – essentially deciding how the two competing state laws should interact – first for an alternate Eversource project, the Seacoast Reliability Project. The committee on that case would come to its own conclusion, which would serve as non-binding guidance for the Northern Pass subcommittee, committee members said.

Only if the interpretation were appealed to the state Supreme Court would the committee have a binding answer, its members said.

Given the impassioned response to the project, which is a joint endeavor of Eversource and Hydro-Quebec, such an appeal wouldn’t be surprising. Several Northern Pass opponents appeared at the hearing Thursday, shrugging afterward and remarking that they’re used to not getting their way.

Concord’s deputy city solicitor, Danielle Pacik, said the city supported the petition because it hoped it’d get a final decision sooner and know how to proceed. Otherwise, an unfavorable decision could be handed down at the last minute, opening up the possibility that construction begins while an appeal is still pending, she said.

The city also wants to ensure it’s allowed to keep records according to its usual standards.

“The benefit of requiring a permit is that it ensures the city of Concord knows where all the poles and wires are located, it ensures that we’re properly taxing the utility, and it requires the utility to notify Concord if it makes any changes to the structures,” she said.

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325, nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @NickBReid.)