My Turn: Northern Pass does it again
In October 2010, New Hampshire residents woke up to find high-voltage transmission route lines drawn across maps of their properties by a project with a name that sounded vaguely like “Northwest Passage,” the fabled lucrative trade route from Europe to Asia. But this was Northern Pass, a Quebec-Connecticut plan to construct more than 1,100 visually jarring steel towers up to 155 feet tall through a 180-mile swath of New Hampshire in order to reach lucrative energy markets in Southern New England.
Without seeking permission from landowners, much less notifying them, the Northern Pass developers had helped themselves freely to private property to plot the route for their new elective power line. They assumed they would be able to take what they had to by eminent domain. They told the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission so.
But such confiscation of private property was not to be. The Legislature took steps to remedy the egregious insult with House Bill 648, passed in 2012. HB 648 closed a loophole in New Hampshire law and denied optional, unneeded merchant utility projects like Northern Pass the right to seize the property of New Hampshire residents.
HB 648 leveled the playing field. Northern Pass was obliged to start over and win its route fair and square. The contest began. Northern Pass convinced a small minority of landowners to sell to them – for exorbitant offers – but the vast majority of those along the route opposed the project. At town meetings from 2011 to 2013, 10 communities on the then-proposed route in Coos County, including Clarksville, Stewartstown and Pittsburg, as well as 23 other towns to the south voted against Northern Pass in nonbinding warrant articles. And thousands of individuals donated to the Forest Society’s campaign to block the project’s intended route and compel the developers to produce a responsible proposal with viable alternatives acceptable to the public.
The will of the people had become clear. Northern Pass had failed to win the heart and mind of New Hampshire. When it ran out of property owners willing to sell land that would enable the project to work around Connecticut Lakes Headwaters conservation tracts, the project was at a dead end. This result should have led to a new proposal respectful of New Hampshire’s people and environment or ended the project, but neither occurred.
Instead, on June 27, residents of Pittsburg, Clarksville and Stewartstown woke up to find high-voltage transmission route lines drawn on maps of public roads in their towns by a project whose name they now knew all too well, Northern Pass. They learned that the developers are planning to use 8 miles of local roads to patch together a new route some 187 miles long, with only a tiny fraction (4 percent) buried along these roads. This is not the new deal New Hampshire has been looking for. Nor is Northern Pass’s apparent modus operandi a sign that the developers plan to respect New Hampshire values.
Northern Pass did not ask the towns’ permission to use their roads and apparently will not do so. On its website, the project says that where it has been unable to purchase private land or easements for its new route, it “will seek permission to use (other land) as part of its permit application with the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee.” That is, Northern Pass, a private project ineligible for eminent domain, will ask the SEC to authorize its use of town roads. Having failed to win over the public on the merits of the project, Northern Pass will once again resort to preemptive means to force its way through New Hampshire, disrupting the lives of citizens and communities even further.
If towns want to object, they will be forced to defend themselves in an expensive battle in the adjudicative SEC process. Towns as small as 300 people (Clarksville) will have to face off against the power and resources of mega-utility corporations with large squads of lawyers and a merchant project that has already spent millions preparing self-justifying studies and reports.
What’s to stop Northern Pass from seeking such preemptive solutions that use public road “workarounds” for its routing problems further south, for instance, near the Concord Airport or on existing PSNH easements with pole height, placement, and other restrictions?
Contact your representatives, senators, executive councilors and Gov. Maggie Hassan. Tell them New Hampshire still has crucial work to do to level the playing field for towns being eyed by private energy developers. We must protect citizens and communities from preemptive moves like the one that a merchant project now plans to request in Pittsburg, Clarksville and Stewartstown. And perhaps, as time goes on, in your town too.
(Susan Schibanoff, a member of Responsible Energy Action LLC, lives in Easton.)