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In the path of Northern Pass

Last modified: 5/8/2011 12:00:00 AM
Nestled on the western side of the White Mountain National Forest, Lincoln is a town of less than 1,700 whose economy is based on tourism - people come to spend money on hotels, outdoor equipment and second homes so they can hike, camp and ski on the peaks.

Residents from across the state are protesting the Northern Pass, a plan to build 180 miles of high-voltage power lines that will carry 1,200 megawatts of hydroelectricity from the Canadian border to Deerfield.

Many landowners will be directly affected because they are in the path of 40 miles of proposed new rights of way. However, towns like Lincoln dot the 140 miles of the route where power lines already exist, and while no homes will be directly affected and no new paths will be cleared, many residents and business owners oppose the project and believe it will harm the natural beauty of their communities.

"My customers are hikers, and these lines will intrude on their view," said Steve Smith, who 12 years ago opened The Mountain Wanderer Books & Maps on Route 112. While he sells everything from travel guides to Portland to "Brake for Moose" bumper stickers, his bread and butter is selling trail maps to locals and tourists eager to hike, snowshoe, cycle and ski the slopes and valleys of the forests that surround Lincoln.

He took out a map last week and laid it across the counter space by his register.

"We aren't like the Great North Woods in the North Country," where new rights of way will be cleared, he said, as his finger searched the map. "Here, there's already an existing line," he said, pointing to a small, barely-perceivable dotted line that represents the current corridor, which crosses through the federally owned White Mountain National Forest on the western corner of Lincoln, intersecting the Appalachian Trail before continuing to the town of Woodstock.

The right of way and the 40- to 60-foot wooden poles that carry the lines have been there since 1948, so the towns along its corridor have had more than half a century to get used to them. But residents and business owners worry that the plan by Northern Pass to add high-voltage metal towers that are 90 to 130 feet tall will represent a complete change to the landscape.

"These will be two to three times as high," Smith said. "It's just so much bigger, the scale is hard to comprehend. That's taller than any tree in New Hampshire.

"Most business owners in this town are tourism-related," Smith said. "I don't know anyone in favor of it."

Like many business owners in Lincoln, Smith isn't convinced that the project, if passed, would spell the end of the tourism industry in his town, but he also doesn't see many real benefits.

"There are a lot of negatives, but not real positives," Smith said. "Who knows what the effects will be?"

North of the map store, past the summer snack shacks that sell ice cream and fried food and the several stores that rent ski equipment and pricey parkas, and across the street from a small stand that sells tickets to moose tours, Randy Farwell sits on a fake leather sofa in the main office of Alpine Adventures.

He and his wife founded the business in 1997. It offers customers the chance to zip line from treetop to treetop of the giant pines in the White Mountain National Forest.

Farwell has been an outspoken opponent of the Northern Pass project since learning about it in January. He cites many reasons why he doesn't believe it's right for New Hampshire, like not wanting New Hampshire to import foreign power and concern for how such a big project could affect the local, small-scale renewable power industry. But Farwell has a personal stake in the plan: The land his company leases for its "eco tours" is near the existing right of way where the new lines would be located.

"The main reason people come here is to see the pristine forests of New Hampshire," Smith said as he relaxed into the sofa. The office has a cabin-like atmosphere, its fireplace adorned with wooden cutouts of black bears and a gigantic moose head jutting from the wall.

The canyon that Alpine Adventures customers cross over on their zip lines is at the edge of the easement held by Public Service of New Hampshire, whose parent company, Northeast Utilities, would be paid by Canadian utility Hydro Quebec to construct the lines. The current lines are 60 feet tall, and Smith said his business "co-exists" with them without any problem.

However, he's worried that the proposed taller, high-voltage power lines would be a visual impairment for customers' views of Barron Mountain and the surrounding peaks, which is the main selling point for the tours.

He's not totally pessimistic that increasing the height of the lines in a right of way that already exists will be the death knell for Alpine Adventures.

"We're pretty resilient, and I feel confident we can wiggle around it," Smith said, adding that if he has to, he'll spend the thousands of dollars necessary to re-route the lines so that views aren't as impacted. "But you can't say that tourism won't be affected. The views are the reason people come here."

At its town meeting this spring, Lincoln passed a warrant article opposing the project. Its language mentioned effects on tourism. Town Manager Peter Joseph submitted a comment to the U.S. Department of Energy, which is currently studying the project proposal as part of the federal permitting process, indicating that the political will of the townspeople was against Northern Pass.

"The effect on tourism is a gray area, and you can't prove it either way," Smith said. He added that the effect may not be right away, but he's concerned about the cumulative impact of large-scale development in the northern part of the state.

He markets views of that virgin wilderness to thousands of tourists each year, allowing him to employ 40 people in the summer high season and 10 people year-round.

"I don't think it will stop tourism dead in its tracks, but it takes the area and give it a really commercial, industrialized look. People are looking for an area of escape."

Martin Murray, a spokesman for the project, said that Northern Pass is not without its benefits to towns already on the right of way. Lincoln, for instance, would see a 2 percent increase in its tax base. The project would add $16.6 million in assessed value, which would mean $92,000 each year to the town, $108,000 to the education fund and $20,000 to Grafton County.

While that might not be as much of an increase as in areas where new rights of way would be established, it would be in addition to broader benefits, including the influx of energy onto the New England power grid that is both cheaper and cleaner.

The three-year construction period would also bring 550 new jobs to Grafton Country annually, Murray said.

"That's a real, direct benefit, and some of those jobs will certainly impact Lincoln directly as those people utilize the services" of the area, he said.

People who make a living on the housing market in Lincoln have concerns too.

Though Murray points out that the existing right of way only cuts through three parcels of land, and all are owned the U.S. Forest Service, real estate agents are already wary of the proposal.

"It has a very strong potential to diminish property values of the people who are going to be closest to it," said Tom Tremblay. He owns Coldwell Banker LinWood real estate. While its main office is in Lincoln, the dozen agents who work for him sell houses in towns across the Loon Mountain area.

"There are a number of people I've talked to who have houses near the lines, and it's going to devastate property values," Tremblay said. "I've had the experience of trying to sell a house that was very close to an existing power line, and we couldn't even get people to look at it. People would see the power line, and they wouldn't even touch it."

Tremblay said the reason that people lose interest in houses near power lines is twofold: diminished views and perceived health risks.

"You talk to 10 experts, you get 10 different opinions" on whether high-voltage lines increase the risk of diseases like cancer, Tremblay said. But families, not experts, are doing the buying, and perception of health risks often matters more than what studies show. Even people who don't believe that it could affect their health might shy away from a house they think may be hard to resell because of a perception of the lines being a hazard.

Tremblay falls in line with business owners and residents who think there's a big difference between 60-foot wooden poles and metal ones that look like, as Tremblay describes it "Eiffel Towers" dotting the landscape.

"They are going to be more obtrusive towers," Tremblay said. "It all boils down to the aesthetics of the whole thing."

Paul Carolan, a board member of the Lincoln-Woodstock Chamber of Commerce and the general manager of the Village of Loon Mountain, a resort that has timeshare units and condos, agrees.

"I'm very much against it, and the Chamber is not supportive of it," Carolan said. "Residences, hotels, time shares . . . People come up here because of the White Mountains and the scenic views."

Brian Underwood, an appraiser hired by Northern Pass as its real estate valuation expert, said that public fear of how much power lines will affect property values is often blown out of proportion.

Lines can affect values, but ones added to existing rights of way tend to have less of an impact than where new corridors must be established, he said.

Hypothetically, those properties nearest the lines, where the right of way bisects the land, will have a greater possibility of losing value than those farther away. And property where the lines can't be seen at all could have zero effect on land value, he said.

Yet, for business owners who rely on the White Mountains for their income, nervousness - and anger - persists.

The beauty of the White Mountains sets Grafton County apart as a tourist destination and hot spot for second-home buyers, Carolan said.

"You don't put a gouge down that," he said. "Not here, specifically not here."

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


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