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Northern Pass request stirs up residents

Last modified: 4/14/2011 12:00:00 AM
The request by Northern Pass for the Department of Energy to drop consideration of five controversial alternative routes on its proposed plan to bring hydroelectricity from Canada via 180 miles of power lines has opponents confused and agitated, not placated as the company had hoped.

Northern Pass said it was reacting to opposition expressed at recent public hearings toward alternative routes that cut through towns as far north as Lancaster and Northumberland and as far south as Epsom and Deerfield. Unlike the alternative routes, the preferred route for the project would use mostly existing rights of way.

But displeased residents and environmental advocacy groups say that most of the opposition for the project wasn't borne of 'not in my backyard' sentiment along alternative routes to begin with, so asking the department to stop consideration of those routes won't go very far in reducing the antagonism toward the project.

The filing showed a renewed commitment to existing rights of way as the preferred route, further frustrating those who feel that Northern Pass should be looking at more options, not fewer.

Concerns linger

'Northern Pass thinks people like us will disappear,' said Jim Dannis. His home in Dalton is located on one of the alternative routes the company wants removed. 'They are so wrong. We are more concerned than ever.'

The project would bring 1,200 megawatts of hydroelectricity 180 miles from the Canadian border to a converter station in Franklin then to Deerfield where it would be fed into the regional power grid. While the most vocal opposition has come from the North Country, residents all over the state, as well as environmental advocacy groups like the Conservation Law Foundation and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, have expressed concerns about the project's possible effects on land rights, property values, tourism, wildlife habitat and the local renewable power industry.

Republicans Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Rep. Charlie Bass have announced opposition to the project this month, and Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen has also expressed concern.

'It shows us that they're digging in their heels and saying 'My way or the highway,' ' Dannis said of Northern Pass's filing.

He and his wife, Alexandra, previously filed with the Department of Energy, asking it to explore burying the lines and other options in the environmental impact statement it will prepare on the project as part of a federal permitting process.

Others, too, have called for the department to analyze burying the lines, routing them through Vermont or scrapping the project altogether, and claim that the environmental analysis won't be complete unless every option's effects are presented.

But Tuesday's filing asked that these alternatives not be considered, explaining that burying the lines 'is not practicable given the terrain along significant portions of the route, and it would have a prohibitive cost.'

Canadian utility Hydro-Quebec is paying Northeast Utilities (the parent company of Public Service of New Hampshire) and Boston-based NSTAR, the two companies that comprise Northern Pass, to help obtain permits for the $1.1 billion project and to complete its construction.

Dannis said Northern Pass's response was 'misleading' because it only addressed the terrain of the preferred route, which consists mainly of existing rights-of-way owned by PSNH, which happen to be in some of the state's most beautiful and ecologically sensitive areas. Though that may be the most affordable route for Northern Pass, it doesn't mean other routes, like those along highways or railroads, are too rocky or steep to bury the lines, Dannis said.

'It was an odd strategy, and it seems politically motivated to reduce the number of landowners that are potentially concerned about the project,' said Christophe Courchesne, attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation. But when so many are calling for careful analysis of options that Northern Pass told the department were unreasonable, that strategy isn't likely to work, he said.

'These options should be extensively studied rather than dismissed out of hand,' Courchesne said, adding that residents want a more detailed explanation and review of why options like burying the lines or placing them in Vermont aren't viable. PSNH cites issues with reliability due to National Grid's high-capacity lines in its Vermont corridor.

'I see no indication that the opposition to the project as it's proposed is going away,' Courchesne said.

Still a problem

According to the filing, 'It became apparent to Northern Pass that several of the alternatives . . . to the preferred route for the project are so lacking in public support that they should no longer be deemed practical alternatives.'

But while the filing addressed those who were upset about proposed new rights of way in places like Chichester, Littleton and Haverhill, Northern Pass may have underestimated the number of people who take issue with using the existing rights of way on the preferred route, Courchesne said.

'They seem to suggest that public support is the litmus test for this project, but everyone who has attended the (public hearings) knows that the preferred route has about the same level of public support as the alternatives,' he said.

And that level of support is low, Norah Conkling said. The existing right of way that Northern Pass wants to use runs through her backyard in New Hampton. Right now, the 60-foot pine trees that surround the corridor completely hide the 40-foot wooden utility poles it contains.

It will be a different story if those poles are replaced with high-voltage power lines that are 90 to 135 feet tall, Conkling said.

Instead of an invisible existing right of way, it will be a metallic 'monstrosity' that would dominate not only the view from her deck, dining room and bedroom, but of anyone within miles of the lines.

She said some people did not even know that they live near an existing right of way because the current power lines are hidden by the trees.

'I feel like people are going to wake up to these towers and say 'Oh my God,' ' Conking said.

Raymond D'Amante, a Concord-based attorney representing over 100 landowners against the project, said that his clients are angrier than ever about the filing. The preferred route it mentions still includes eight miles of new rights of way in Concord, Chichester and Pembroke.

'This is a step back' for residents who are worried about their properties losing value or being taken away altogether if that right of way has to be cleared, D'Amante said.

Northern Pass reiterated in its filing this week that if the Federal Aviation Administration will allow the lines to be built in existing rights of way around the Concord Municipal Airport, those eight miles won't need to be cleared.

But until the administration makes its decision, many of the homes of D'Amante's clients remain in the 'preferred' route.

'It will be ugly from a distance, and it will be devastating up close,' D'Amante said, adding that the new right of way would leave a 150-foot-wide gash on the sides of two summits in Chichester and Pembroke that can be seen from as far away as Steeplegate Mall in Concord.

While the filing asked for more time to explore other options in the North Country, any plan that involves clearing 40 miles of rights of way is going to cause controversy there, said Will Abbott, vice president for policy and land management for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, an environmental advocacy organization that has been vocal in its criticism for the current plan.

'I don't think there are many people in Coos County who will find any corridor through Coos County to be acceptable,' Abbott said.

The society has had invitations to speak at citizen-led opposition meetings across the state, including places like Nashua, which is not on an existing or alternative route.

Jack Savage, a spokesman for the society, said that indicates that the lack of support for the project runs deeper than just the alternative routes.

'It sounds like they've decided to take some of their alternatives off the table,' Abbott said, 'but the main event is still the main event.'

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


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