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Neighbors wary of taller power towers

Last modified: 6/19/2011 12:00:00 AM
Brian and Deena Hupper looked at land for almost four years before deciding 13 wooded acres in Franklin were perfect for their retirement home. The power lines cutting a swath alongside the property didn't deter the couple from building a small ranch there two years ago.

Those existing lines, which sit about 100 feet from the house, have been a fine neighbor, said Brian Hupper, who relocated from Merrimack.

"The wildest thing up here is the turkeys and something that keeps tipping my garbage can over," he said. "It's a good quality of life."

That's over, Hupper believes, if Northern Pass gets clearance to erect new towers, as much as 45 feet taller than those there now, for its hydro-electric line. The Huppers, like other opponents along the proposed 180-mile route from Coos to Rockingham counties, don't want towers obstructing their view, fear their property will lose value and don't believe New Hampshire should cut into its landscape to bring electric power from Canada to New England.

"When I first heard about it, it was, 'Okay, what is this going to do to me?" Hupper said. "And then it was, 'Holy s---, are you kidding?' "

 A divisive project

The $1.1 billion project has been controversial since it was made public in October by Northern Pass, a partnership between Public Service Company of New Hampshire, Northeast Utilities, NSTAR and Hydro-Quebec. In addition to the visual and economic concerns, opponents fear the new, more powerful lines will pose health risks. Others doubt claims that the energy is "green" or truly needed.

The proposed line would carry 1,200 megawatts of hydro-electric power from Quebec to Deerfield, where the energy would be released into the New England power grid. PSNH officials predict this infusion of hydro-energy would push out dirtier forms of energy and thereby reduce carbon emissions by up to five million tons annually, said Martin Murray, company spokesman.

The power would be converted from DC to AC power in Franklin, through a new station predicted to bring the city $4.2 million in tax revenue annually. That amount is about half of what Franklin raises in taxes now from residents and business owners. And it's what has made Franklin city officials the most vocal supporters of Northern Pass aside from company officials.

Mayor Ken Merrifield lives along an existing right of way that could be widened to make room for taller towers. That has never diminished his enthusiasm for the project. He's sometimes surprised by the opposition in Franklin.

"I have to wonder if people realize how big this project will be for Franklin," he said. "If they realize we will be able to fund capital projects we never could. If they realize we will be able to fund our schools to a greater degree. If they know will be able to offer property tax relief to a staggering extent. Or , if they realize we will be able to do all three."

Thirty other communities, meanwhile, have voted to oppose the project. Most of them are in northern New Hampshire along the 40 miles between Pittsburg and Groveton where PSNH would need to clear untouched land for its poles and power line.

But opposition is also growing here, where the line would mostly run along existing rights of way. Miles of those rights of way would be widened to make room for taller poles or towers carrying power lines.

In Concord, PSNH would widen the existing 300-foot right of way by 32 to 46 feet, Murray said in an email. In Canterbury and Northfield, the rights of way would be widened by 65 feet, Murray said.

Towers or poles holding the new line would stand between 90 and 110 feet, taller than the current poles, which range from about 40 to 75 feet tall, according to numbers Murray provided. PSNH has not yet decided whether it would use towers or more traditional poles to hold the line. The project could use both, depending on what works for each area.

 A new view

Mary Lee of Northfield worries landowners along the existing rights of way don't realize their landscape could change. Hers would change dramatically, she said. "It's frustrating that everyone thinks this is just (happening) in the mountains up north," said Lee. "This project really affects 180 miles of residences."

Lee lives beside a 225-foot-wide right of way dotted with power lines but can barely see it through a stand of trees. In fact, a visitor sees nothing but trees once they reach the end of Lee's long winding driveway. Project officials told Lee this spring she'd lose her buffer if the project goes through because the right of way would need to be widened by 65 feet. Instead of seeing forest from her windows, Lee would see power lines and massive poles.

"PSNH has been a good neighbor," Lee said recently. "I can live with little poles that kind of look like trees. And I can live with bigger poles if there are trees to hide the lines. But if they take all my trees down, I will lose my property. This is my life."

Since retiring this spring, Lee has made Northern Pass research and awareness her full-time job. When contractors arrived with $400 and a request to cross her land to get to the right of way to do an environmental survey, Lee turned them down. Others have done the same, saying no amount of money would convince them to help PSNH make any progress on the project.

Robert Stephen has two pieces of property near Webster Lake in Franklin, his house and a place he rents. He can't see the lake from his place but he can see the existing power lines, which do run along the lake. Stephen isn't pleased that he may see larger poles and lines. But he's equally concerned by the universal endorsement for the project from Franklin officials.

Stephen doubts increased tax revenue will last once Northern Pass builds its converter station in the city; the company could ask for a tax abatement down the road, he said. And Stephen joins others who disbelieve promises of 1,200 new jobs. Skilled jobs can't be filled by locals, he predicted, and the rest of the jobs will be temporary construction jobs.

"If you have to come through (Franklin), why would you come through our only natural resource and tourist attraction, which is our lake and beaches?" Stephen asked. "What puzzles me is why city officials really believe this is cream cheese. I've got a bad feeling that it's a done deal."

The project is under federal review now. If it succeeds there, it will move onto state review.

 Some see opportunity

There's at least one person - in addition to the Franklin officials - who wants Northern Pass to pass over his property: Ray D'Amante, a Concord lawyer and commercial land developer. In an April letter to federal officials reviewing the project, D'Amante acknowledged he was likely the only person with that request.

D'Amante's position is a unique one.

On one hand, D'Amante represents landowners in Chichester and Pembroke who will see the power line and a wide right of way through their land if PSNH cannot use the existing right of way near the airport in Concord. That group is fiercely opposed to Northern Pass.

That route is under consideration because federal aviation officials have said PSNH's proposed towers near the airport are too tall and will interfere with flight paths. The two sides are working to find an alternative that would make the airport route work. D'Amante argues they must reach an agreement because cutting new paths through Chichester and Pembroke is unacceptable.

It would put a "scar" across some of the prettiest views from Concord, he said. Some of the homes along the route are historic and date to the 1700s. The proposed route would cross over conservation easements. And there's an easier solution, D'Amante argues.

He owns commercial property in the existing right of way off Loudon Road, including Shaw's, Target, Home Depot, Michael's Arts and Crafts and others. That area already has power lines running above it. Another one won't make a difference, he said.

"The negative impacts on (the Chichester and Pembroke) route evaporate if we put this in the existing right of way," D'Amante said. "And, it's just a socially responsible position to take."

D'Amante, like other landowners whose property contains a right of way, receives no compensation for granting PSNH an easement for its power lines. Murray said landowners were compensated when the easement was first purchased but do not receive ongoing payments.

Wayne Mann of Canterbury has welcomed PSNH and the Northern Pass project too. He owns about 200 acres off Fife Road, some of which PSNH uses for power lines. He and his wife run Grandview Farm, where they grow vegetables and flowers and cut hay for the horse trade, Mann said.

The existing power line has never bothered them. Nor does the idea of a wider right of way and taller towers. After looking at a series of photographs simulating what the new line would look like, Mann thought the more traditional pole looked better than the towers but didn't oppose the construction.

PSNH has been good to work with, he said. When the company has needed access to the existing right of way to clear vegetation or work on the lines, company representatives have always asked first, Mann said. They cleared some trees out of the right of way about four years ago and left Mann about 40 cords of firewood. He's still burning it for winter heat.

Mann is not unsympathetic to landowners in northern New Hampshire who don't have swaths of power lines now and would see their landscape change more dramatically with this project. But he also believes that electricity must be supplied and distributed regionally, not within state borders, as some have argued. While New Hampshire may produce more power than it uses, that is not the right argument in Mann's mind.

"We are going to need power, and it's going to have to come from somewhere," he said. "The demand is going to continue to grow. We are bombarded daily by things that need power to use them. And you have to understand the power pool. We are in the power pool, and unless people want to give up their microwaves, electric toothbrushes and hairdryers, we are going to need renewable energy."

Hydro-power and Northern Pass answer that need, he said.

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323 or atimmins@cmonitor.com.)


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