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Balsams deal appears key to power plan

Last modified: 12/29/2011 12:00:00 AM
When they lost a $3 million bid for land at the Balsams last week, Northern Pass officials said the piece wasn't critical to their proposed hydropower line from Canada. But the company's recent land purchases in northern New Hampshire suggest otherwise.

Since mid-October, Northern Pass has spent nearly $4 million buying property from the Canadian border to the Balsams property in Dixville Notch, according to property deed records. The 16 properties aren't contiguous, but they line up well enough on a map to reveal what was likely Northern Pass's latest hope for a new route though the North Country.

But without the Balsams piece, the route stops abruptly with no easy way to achieve its goal of connecting with the existing power line corridor that starts in Groveton. And if Northern Pass can't negotiate a path to that existing corridor, it won't be able to import hydropower from Canada to the New England power grid.

Northern Pass spokesman Martin Murray declined yesterday to disclose the company's next step.

'I can say that the 24-acre parcel that is on the Balsams property was certainly an alternative that we had an interest in,' Murray said in an email. 'There are other (parcels), but I will decline to discuss them.'

Meanwhile, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, which beat out Northern Pass for the Balsams's land, is raising the money to cover the $850,000 it offered the land's owners for conservation rights on the land and rights to a separate utility easement. The group has until Jan. 15 to come up with the money.

Jack Savage, spokesman for the forest society, said donors have sent in $250,000, nearly half of it over the weekend after news accounts of Northern Pass increasing its bid for the Balsams property. Late last week, Northern Pass told the Balsams land owners it would pay nearly $3 million for those property rights 'in the event' that the deal with the forest society fell through.

It's been 15 months since Northeast Utilities and Hydro-Quebec announced Northern Pass, their $1.2 billion project to bring hydropower to New England. Most of the proposed 180 miles of high-voltage transmission lines will run along the existing power line clearing owned by Public Service of New Hampshire.

But the company needs to buy land for the northernmost 40 miles of line, and that's where it's having trouble.

Fierce public opposition prompted Northern Pass to scrap an initial northern route earlier this year. Company officials said they'd have a new route in place by June but didn't. Now they say they'll unveil the latest route in the first few months of 2012.

While residents in the North Country, where the project is most controversial, have led relentless opposition, Northern Pass officials are finding people willing to sell their land.

Some are out-of-towners like James Phillips of Germany and Jeffery Ford of Kentucky. They sold the company land in Stewartstown and Clarksville, respectively. Ford sold 91 acres for $275,000, according to property deed records. Phillips was paid $60,000 but his deed did not specify the size of the lot.

A Virginia woman sold 85 acres in Clarksville held by a trust she oversees for $525,000. Another trust with out-of-town trustees sold 22 acres for $99,000, according to deed records.

But some sellers are local. A Bethlehem couple sold nearly 50 acres in Stewartstown for $90,000. A Lancaster man who runs a real estate company sold an undisclosed amount of land in Clarksville for $580,000.

Rosaire Marquis, who lives in Vermont, sold 109 acres in Colebrook to Northern Pass for $125,000. Marquis said last night he regrets he didn't demand more. Marquis said Northern Pass officials approached him three or four times about selling his land before he agreed.

'I didn't know what other pieces were selling for,' Marquis said last night. 'I should have asked for more.'

Marquis hasn't thought much about the hydropower project. 'It doesn't bother me too much because I'm far away,' he said. 'I do what I want with my land.'

Northern Pass bought those properties though a subsidiary called Renewable Properties. Prior to that, the company was buying land under the name Properties Inc.

Last month, Northern Pass introduced a new subsidiary called 07.25 LLC. The name appears to reference the July 2011 date the company was created. That subsidiary bought two properties in November, both from locals, according to property records.

One man, who could not be reached, sold Stewartstown land he bought in 1971 for $210,000. The deed did not say how big the parcel was. And a pair of sisters-in-law sold 50 acres to 07.25 in Stewartstown for $156,000.

One of the women, Pauline Lemieux, said yesterday the company approached them about selling. Their husbands bought the parcel years ago, and the couples enjoyed staying there in a camp on the property. But both women are over 75 now, Lemieux said, and they felt it was time to sell.

'We may not feel elderly, but we are and that's a fact,' Lemieux said. She also believes Northern Pass is a 'done deal' that will happen whether she agrees to sell or not. She said company officials never threatened to take their land by eminent domain, but she feared they would if they had to.

The women didn't need the money, Lemieux said. But they felt they should dispose of the land before they died.

'We did a lot of soul searching of 'Should we? or shouldn't we?' ' Lemieux said. 'I'm not in favor of (Northern Pass) but I think it's going to go through no matter what.'

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


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