Power plan has local connection

Last modified: 1/21/2011 12:00:00 AM
The Northern Pass project by Northeast Utilities and Hydro Quebec might require cutting as much as 28 miles of new right of way in the southern half of the state. How much - if any - hinges largely on the project getting approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to build the towers next to existing lines around Concord's airport, according to Northeast Utilities.

Officials and residents in Concord and neighboring towns are saying they aren't necessarily opposed to the project, which would bring 1,200 megawatts of electricity through 140 miles of high-voltage power lines from Canada to a converter station in Franklin, and then to Deerfield to be piped into the regional power grid. But those who are in the path of the proposed routes are voicing their concerns about clearing new rights of way to build them.

Worries about how transmission lines would affect property values, scenic views and the environment, echo sentiments heard in the North Country, where the proposal of 40 new miles of right of way has sparked significant protest.

"I'm not happy with it at all. I spent my life getting this chunk of land together, and it wasn't to give them a route to run their power lines though," said James Haggett of Pembroke.

Haggett and his wife, Linda, attended a selectmen's meeting in the town Monday. At the meeting, representatives from the project explained that if the FAA doesn't grant Northeast Utilities permission to build towers, which would range in height from 90 to 135 feet, near existing lines around Concord Municipal Airport, a swath of land just over 8 miles long and 150 feet wide may need to be cut through Concord, Pembroke and Chichester to avoid the airport.

"We're waiting for them to give us the determination so we can move forward," said Brian Bosse, project manager for the Northern Pass project, which submitted an application in late October.

Representatives for the project told people at the Pembroke meeting that they hope to hear back from the FAA in the coming weeks, said Martin Murray, spokesman for Public Service of New Hampshire, which is owned by Northeast Utilities. He said his estimate is based on how long the FAA has taken to make decisions about obstructions near airports in the past.

"We're as eager as the residents to find out," said Murray, who added that Northeast Utilities prefers to use the existing right of way by the airport if it's possible. "But I can't tell you what they're going to do."

The lines in the current right of way around Concord - including the lines around the airport - vary in height from 48 to 88 feet, so the new towers, which would be built next to the old ones, may represent a considerable increase in height.

No one at the FAA could address the specifics of the project's application for approval, but a spokesperson said that if the plans involve building towers high enough and close enough to the runway, aircraft will have to alter angles or directions to land safely and the approval process will involve significant research as well as the input of several arms of the administration.

The eight miles of new right of way would cut through undeveloped private land in the Broken Ground area of Concord north of Route 393 in Concord, and in north Pembroke and south Chichester between Plausawa and Garvin Hills. It would cut through 54 separate land parcels, most of them residential, Murray said.

"It's going to be a massive scar across the entire face of that mountain, which is very visible from the west looking east," said Raymond D'Amante, referencing the impact to the hills. D'Amante is a Concord-based attorney who will represent several Penacook and Chichester residents in upcoming Department of Energy hearings about the project and other meetings.

"More important is the impact on the properties that will be taken as well as the hundreds of properties that will not be taken but will still have the towers in their yards or just beyond their yards. They are massive steel towers" that are well over twice as high as the normal wood power lines people are used to seeing in that area," he said, adding that several historic properties, including homesteads dating to the 1700s in Chichester, will be affected.

The project plans to offer to buy easements, or usage rights, from landowners instead of forcing residents to sell the land through eminent domain, though that is an option as a last resort, according to Gary Long, president of Public Service of New Hampshire.

Marc Chronis collected 32 signatures to submit a petition article to oppose the project if it means cutting new rights of way after he found out the lines would bisect his 60 acres of property and come within 100 feet of his home.

"They're going to be so close to my house I'll be able to use them as clotheslines," Chronis said.

Carlos Baia, deputy city manager for development in Concord, said the city greatly prefers Northern Pass to utilize the existing right of way near the airport.

"We really don't want them to impact or add any additional right of way in our community," Baia said.

Maps on the Northern Pass website - the ones submitted to the Department of Energy for their permitting process - don't show the path that would use the airport right of way, because the application to build there has yet to be evaluated by the FAA, according to Murray. Instead, maps show a red dotted line called the preferred route, which includes the eight miles of right of way that would need to be cleared if the FAA doesn't grant approval.

Two other alternatives are shown on the maps, including one that would require 28 miles of new right of way through Concord, Chichester, Pittsfield and Northwood and would be in the path of more than 90 residences in those areas.

It's those alternatives that worry Baia, who would rather see that space be used for development or conservation, not power lines.

Transmission lines could affect residents and the environment in the southern part of the state in the same way they could affect the North Country, said Jack Savage, spokesperson for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.

Many residents in the North Country have protested, calling the project unnecessary and a sure way to cause property values and tourism dollars to dwindle.

"Any new big hole through the forests in the south would have the same impact as a big hole through the forest would have up north," said Savage, who added that the society will fight to uphold any conservation easements it holds on land that lies in the path of proposed new rights of way.

According to Murray, the longer right of way would only be cut through the south if the FAA didn't allow the project to use the existing lines near the airport and if the Department of Energy decided that the 28-mile alternative route was better than the other routes project leaders would prefer - the ones that require the least amount of new right of way.

If the FAA does grant permission, no new rights of way will be necessary in the south.

D'Amante said that would be enough to make his clients happy, and Baia said the city has no problem with taller transmission lines being erected as long as they are in a path that already exists.

For now, all anyone can do is wait, Bosse said.

Until Bosse and his colleagues get word back from the FAA, concerns will continue to grow for Hagget and other residents near the three potential routes.

"There are so many ifs ands and buts about it right now that we aren't really sure what to do," he said.

(Tara Ballenger can be reached at 369-3306 or tballenger@cmonitor.com.)

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