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Power lines meet resistance

Last modified: 11/2/2011 12:00:00 AM
Northern Pass officials may find that widening existing power line easements from Groveton to Deerfield to bring hydropower from Canada requires more than finding landowners willing to sell.

The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests is challenging Northern Pass's right to use any of the 140 miles of existing right of way, arguing that Northern Pass is a private company, not the public utility that negotiated those easements decades ago. The society is urging landowners along the proposed route to research their property deeds for language that would prevent Northern Pass from erecting towers and transmission lines along the right of way.

"We are saying, 'Not so fast,' " said society spokesman Jack Savage. "Before (Northern Pass officials) talk about expanding the right of way, they need to talk about the right to even put a transmission line there. We are saying they don't automatically have that right."

Savage said the society, which opposes Northern Pass, is prepared to challenge the issue in court if necessary.

Martin Murray, Northern Pass spokesman, said by email yesterday that the deed review the society suggests makes sense: "We are reviewing every easement deed to ensure there are no issues, and we expect property owners to do the same," Murray wrote. "We're happy to talk to those property owners if they like."

Introduced a year ago, Northern Pass is a venture between Hydro-Quebec, Northeast Utilities, the parent company of the Public Service of New Hampshire, and NSTAR. Project officials are seeking federal permission to bring hydropower from Canada to Deerfield, where it would enter the New England power grid.

The proposed 180-mile route would require 40 miles of new clearing in the North Country, north of Groveton. The remaining 140 miles would run in PSNH's existing right of way. Murray said some areas may be widened to accommodate shorter transmission poles but that widening isn't necessary for the project to go through.

Bill and Michelle Shoemaker of Brush Road in Pembroke live along the existing right of way and said Northern Pass engineers have approached them twice in the last several days about expanding the existing easement.

The couple built their home 35 years ago and cleared only one acre of the 12 they bought because they wanted to live in the woods. They've got to plow half their road themselves in the winter because the town doesn't maintain it, and they enjoy the deer and turkeys that come by their house.

The Shoemakers can see the existing power line from the end of their driveway but not their house. They said the Northern Pass engineers wanted to widen the existing clearing by 45 feet, in the direction of their house. That would leave the couple with no buffer between their house and the power lines, they said.

The engineers never offered a price for the additional easement, but the Shoemakers said they made it clear they weren't interested in selling. "I said, 'You can't move that (hydropower line) far enough away that I will sell you that 45 feet,' " Bill Shoemaker said. "I said, 'Go away, we don't want you here.' "

The couple is afraid Northern Pass officials will take their land by eminent domain if they don't sell. They figure if that happens, they'll get less for the land than anything Northern Pass would offer now. That's a risk they'll take, they said. In the meantime, they intend to research the deed to their property to see what it says about the easement granted decades ago.

"There isn't anything they could say or do that would make us think they could put that thing here," Bill Shoemaker said.

Murray has said Northern Pass officials don't plan to use eminent domain for this project, although other Northern Pass officials have said they'd consider the option if they had to. If they go that route, that will be another legal fight. Opponents argue that Northern Pass is can't legally use eminent domain because the hydropower project is a private venture, not something needed to improve electricity reliability or availability for the New England power grid.

In his email yesterday, Murray declined to say if Northern Pass representatives approached the Shoemakers about widening their right of way. He said only that representatives have approached landowners around the Concord Airport about possible easement expansion because a wider easement would allow Northern Pass to erect shorter transmission poles.

Savage of the forest society said yesterday it's unlikely that any deed will affirmatively prohibit something like the Northern Pass. He shared a deed for property owned by the forest society as an example. It grants an easement on land in Bethlehem to PSNH, allowing PSNH to erect and maintain "electric transmission and distribution lines . . . for the transmission of electric current."

But even absent specific language barring the hydropower project, Savage said "the doctrine of reasonable use" prohibits Northern Pass from using the existing easements. Those easements were granted so PSNH could extend electric power across the state, Savage said. PSNH was engaged in work benefitting the public good, he said.

Northern Pass, a different entity than PSNH, cannot simply assume ownership of those easements, Savage said. He pointed to a legal opinion the forest society recently requested on the state's eminent domain law and whether it could be used by Northern Pass. The opinion, written by attorneys with the Ransmeier and Spellman law firm in Concord, concludes that Northern Pass cannot use the power of eminent domain because it is a new breed of projects that resemble public utilities but are actually private ventures.

"While Northern Pass claims that the project would indirectly contribute to public policy goals regarding the reduction of carbon emissions from electricity generation, it appears to be primarily geared toward fulfilling strategic positioning and profit motives of its private owners," the opinion says.

Savage said that same conclusion applies to Northern Pass's intention to use the existing rights of way.

"So, we would maintain that Northern Pass doesn't have a 40 mile problem" in the North Country where it needs to find new land for transmission lines. "They have a 140-mile problem from Groveton to Deerfield. They do not have access to the existing right of way without renegotiating with every landowner (along the proposed route.)"

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


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