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Northern Pass buys 118-acre plot



Last modified: Monday, December 12, 2011
Northern Pass paid $2.35 million late last week for a 118-acre Franklin campground where it would build a massive converter station if its proposed hydropower line from Canada is approved.

The station, which would convert direct current from Canada into alternating current, would take up between 30 and 40 acres of the former Thousand Acres Family Campground, Northern Pass spokesman Martin Murray said Friday. The rest of the property will be left undeveloped, Murray said, to create a buffer around the building.

'You won't see it from ground,' he said. 'Not from the road or the neighboring properties.'

The campground's owner, Marian Kolbe, told the Monitor in October she was retiring and closing the campground, which her father started in the 1960s. But she declined to confirm speculation at the time that Northern Pass was the buyer because she had not closed the deal.

Kolbe's lawyer, Jim Sessler of Franklin, said Friday that Northern Pass officials approached Kolbe about buying her land, and that the purchase allowed her to retire. The 118-acre parcel at 1079 S. Main St. has an assessed value of $653,300, according to the city's assessing office.

Many of Kolbe's seasonal campers are relocating to the Cozy Pond campground in Webster, according to its owner, Jim DiPrima. He and his wife, Liz, were Thousand Acres regulars until they bought Cozy Pond about a year ago, he said.

Northern Pass's proposed $1.2 billion hydropower project still needs federal and state approval, but officials have been buying property along the 180-mile route since May. The new high-voltage line would run through New Hampshire to Deerfield, where it would deliver power to New England.

The project is facing fierce opposition in the North County, where Northern Pass must clear 40 miles of new rights of way for its lines. But its been celebrated by Franklin officials for its tax benefits, which Northern Pass officials have projected at $4.2 million annually. The campground paid the city about $14,000 a year in taxes.

In addition to the 118-acre parcel, Northern Pass bought two other smaller parcels from Kolbe, each less than four acres, according to the deed. Those properties together are assessed at about $80,000, according to the city's assessing office.

Murray said the campground was an ideal location for Northern Pass because it sits along the existing right of way the project would use to run its new line. 'It's a win-win situation,' Murray said. 'The sellers seem to be happy. Franklin comes out ahead. And campers are getting referred to another local (campground).'

Not only is the Northern Pass power line at least a year away from possible approval, it also has a fight to win. Groups like the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and the Appalachian Mountain Club have joined individual opponents in challenging the project on several grounds.

One issue has involved Northern Pass's plans to use the 140 miles of existing rights of way from Groveton to Deerfield for its new line. Opponents have pledged to fight any efforts by Northern Pass to widen those rights of way or run high-voltage lines along the existing power lines. Murray said the project does not need to widen the route, but doing so would mean the power poles could be shorter. He also disputes arguments that the easements giving Public Service of New Hampshire the right to use the rights of way don't extend to new, high-voltage lines.

The 40 miles north of Groveton have presented Northern Pass officials a different challenge. They dropped an initial route from the Canadian border to Groveton earlier this year after landowners objected to its location. Officials are trying now to buy land along a more easterly route for the line. Murray said he expects the new route will be announced within the first three months of next year.

Opponents fear Northern Pass will get the land through eminent domain. State law already prevents developers from using eminent domain for private projects, which Northern Pass is. And lawmakers will consider legislation next year that further clarifies the issue.

Northern Pass officials have fueled fears of eminent domain by saying they'd use it only as a 'last resort.' When asked whether the officials believed they could use eminent domain given the state law, Murray answered this way: 'We are dong everything we possibly can to avoid even the need to discuss eminent domain.' The project, he said, intends to buy the land it needs from willing landowners.

Asked whether project officials would seek eminent domain power if necessary, Murray said eminent domain 'is not something we on the project team are focused on because we are so intent on finding a route that would make that unnecessary.'

He went on to say that the state would have to ultimately decide whether Northern Pass qualified for the use of eminent domain by deciding whether its hydropower project served the 'public good,' as the law requires.

But he reiterated that the project's goal is to buy land, not take it. Eminent domain 'may be a tool that is in the state's toolbox, but it's not one that we are looking to utilize, and we are doing everything we can to establish a route that has the support of the underlying landowners,' he said.

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