Northern Pass buys up land

Last modified: 10/16/2011 12:00:00 AM
Northern Pass's $1.1 billion hydroelectric power line from Canada is months or more from possible approval, but that hasn't stopped the company from buying land in the North Country, in lots as small as 12 acres and swaths as big as 300.

Since May, Northern Pass has spent more than $850,000 on nearly 720 acres in the North Country, in Pittsburg, Clarksville, Stewartstown, Colebrook, Dixville and Columbia, according to property records in Coos County. The sellers have included out-of-towners shedding second homes and a pair of businessmen who've made more than $1.4 million in recent years speculating on Coos County land.

Those businessmen, John Cochrane of Bangor, Maine, and Craig Chamberlain of Dover, acquired the Pittsburg land now owned by Northern Pass in 2007, from a 69-year-old woman two weeks before she died, according to property and death records.

But Northern Pass representatives have also been quietly signing purchase-and-sales agreements with locals, promising to buy their land if the project is approved, according to several people in the North Country. It's impossible to know how many have been signed because they won't be recorded with the Coos County Registry of Deeds until sales are finalized.

Those familiar with the agreements said the contracts forbid the landowners to discuss the deals and provide generous deposits they can keep even if the project doesn't go through.

Lynne Placey, 65, of Stewartstown said her nephew and neighbor, Landon Placey, visited her last week to say he had signed such a contract with Northern Pass, agreeing to sell his 115 acres for $500,000. She said he got a $50,000 down payment and urged her to do the same with her abutting 114 acres, Lynne Placey said.

Landon Placey said Friday he could not comment. He didn't win over his aunt, who opposes the project.

Lynne Placey's husband died two years ago, and she gets by on Social Security and what she earns from piano lessons. 'Contemplating getting half of a million dollars was quite a carrot to drop in front of me,' she said. 'But I couldn't compromise my ethics. I don't believe in what Northern Pass is doing.'

Northern Pass, a project by Northeast Utilities, Public Service Company of New Hampshire and Hydro-Quebec to bring hydroelectric power from Canada, has faced stiff opposition since it was announced a year ago. The strongest dissent has come from the North Country, where PSNH must clear 45 miles for a new right of way to the Canadian border.

The remaining 140 miles of the proposed route, from Groveton south, would run along PSNH's existing right of way. Finding land for the upper 45 miles of the route has not been easy for the company.

Earlier this year, Northern Pass officials scrapped a route that was to hug the New Hampshire-Vermont border from Pittsburg south because North Country residents objected to it so fiercely. While Northern Pass officials have not announced a new route, the recent land purchases suggest they have moved the line east, entering New Hampshire in Pittsburg and running through Clarksville, Stewartstown, Colebrook, Dixville and Columbia.

Martin Murray, spokesman for Northern Pass, declined Friday to offer specifics about the new route or the recent land purchases.

'We are doing exactly what we said we would do,' Murray wrote in an email. 'We are working with landowners to identify a route in the North Country, either through negotiated property easements or sales.'

Murray continued: 'The timing of the announcement of a new preferred route will be determined by our ongoing discussions with landowners and developing landowner support for the route.'

Landowners profiting

Northern Pass officials have won over more landowners than just Landon Placey.

A Hillsborough County couple, tired of driving four hours each way to their camp on 12 acres in Clarksville, recently sold their property for $90,000, double what they paid four years ago.

The couple, both 52, asked not be named for fear of retaliation against their business. 'So many people are dead set against (Northern Pass),' the wife said. 'But the money was so good, you couldn't ask for a better deal.'

Northern Pass has been buying land through two different companies: Properties Inc. and Renewable Properties. According to the Secretary of State's Office, those companies list the same address and contact person as does Northern Pass and Public Service Company of New Hampshire.

Last week, Renewable Properties recorded the purchase of 12 acres in Colebrook owned by a Wolfeboro couple. The couple could not be reached, but they more than tripled their initial investment in the land, according to deed records. They bought the land for $21,000 in 1991 and sold it Oct. 1 to Renewable Properties for $66,500, according to the deed's tax stamp.

Properties Inc. has been more active in buying land.

Since May, it has purchased 713 acres from Cochrane and Chamberlain, the two land speculators who operate under the name King's Arrow Realty Trust. Properties Inc.'s most recent purchase, on Oct. 1, consisted of 328 acres in Columbia. Properties Inc. paid King's Arrow $130,000, according to deed records. It has also bought land in Pittsburg and Dixville.

Cochrane, who also sells land in Maine, did not return phone calls. Chamberlain declined to comment. Properties Inc. has not been their biggest customer. In 2005, King's Arrow sold an undisclosed amount of land in Randolph to the Trust for Public Lands for about $880,000, according to deed records.

Cochrane and Chamberlain acquired most of their land from paper companies that had owned the parcels since the 1920s, according to deed records. But the Pittsburg land they sold to Northern Pass for passage into Canada has a different history.

Siblings Bradley Hann and Beverly Mann, originally of Pittsburg, inherited the land from their parents. Hann signed his entire portion over to his sister in 2000 because she had become estranged from the family, Hann said.

'We weren't on speaking terms, and it was either going to go that way or it was all going to end up with the lawyers,' Hann said. He and Mann's adult son, who lives in Utah, later tried to buy the land from Mann after she became sick with cancer, Hann said. She refused, and two weeks before she died in 2007, Mann sold it to King's Arrow.

Hann lives in Colebrook and is opposed to the Northern Pass. He figures he will be about 10 miles from transmission lines if the project goes through, and it's not lost on him that his sister's land has provided Northern Pass its entrance into Canada. 'I'm not happy about it at all,' he said.

It seems those land sales have only strengthened the resolve of landowners opposed to the Northern Pass.

Bill Weir of Colebrook has been approached twice by Northern Pass representatives interested in buying his 18 acres in Stewartstown. The first call came a month ago from a Groveton real estate agent who said her 'buyer' was offering cash. 'I told her I wasn't interested, and when she asked again if I realized this guy had cash, I told her I still wasn't interested,' Weir said.

Two weeks ago, he got a second inquiry, this time from Scott Mason of North Stratford, a local farm owner he's known for 20 years. Mason did not return calls for this story, but Murray, the Northern Pass spokesman, confirmed that Mason is working for a local company that's been hired by Northern Pass for the project.

Weir turned down Mason, too. He said he agreed to talk with him only because Mason was a local he'd known so long. Weir figures that local connection is why Mason was recruited to work for the project. 'He's well-known and he's a talker,' Weir said. 'But he's not making any friends here in the North Country.'

Implied threat?

Attorney Bob Baker of Columbia has fielded more than a few calls from locals who've been approached about their land. He's opposed to Northern Pass but said he doesn't object if landowners decide to sell their land, either because they favor the project or need the money. His complaint, he said, is the way Northern Pass is negotiating with landowners.

He dislikes the secrecy of the purchase-and-sales agreements and believes Northern Pass is implying it will take land it can't buy through eminent domain. Murray said Northern Pass representatives are cautioned not to use those two words and haven't. They don't have to, Baker said, because Northern Pass officials have said publicly that while they don't intend to resort to eminent domain, they will seek to use it if they have to.

'The threat is always there,' Baker said. 'It's an implied threat.'

Landowners are left thinking they can sell now for big money or see their land taken by eminent domain for market value, which would be far lower, Baker said.

Will Abbott, vice president of policy and land management for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, agrees. The group opposes Northern Pass and its willingness to use eminent domain if necessary. Abbott doesn't believe Northern Pass can legally use the measure because state law allows its application only for projects in the public's interest.

'I think the big problem is Northern Pass is approaching these landowners with a big checkbook in one hand and a big hammer, i.e. eminent domain, in the other,' Abbott said.

The recent land sales have pitted neighbor against neighbor and, in cases like Placey's, kin against kin. Donna Jordan, publisher of The Colebrook Chronicle, has seen that division reflected in letters to the editor and in conversations with readers, she said.

'I think there's an absolute feeling of anger from those who feel that their neighbors and family are selling out the North Country,' she said. The paper has editorialized against the project. 'However those who have stood firm and are holding onto their land, they will be the ones in the end who could be holding the answers as to whether this project passes or not.'

If Northern Pass cannot ultimately connect all the parcels it's been buying, Jordan believes the project will fail. That is what Lynn Placey is counting on as she hears that more of her neighbors have agreed to sell their land for the project.

It could be enough to divide a community. Placey doesn't think it will divide this one.

'I got a call from a former English teacher for the high school in Colebrook,' Placey said. 'He said, 'When all this settles down, there's going to be heroes and there's going to be traitors, and I just appreciate the stand you are taking.' It warmed my heart. In a way, this has brought this community together.'

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


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