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Eminent domain bill to face panel

Last modified: 12/4/2011 12:00:00 AM
The eminent domain bill that would more clearly prevent private projects like Northern Pass from taking private land will face its next test Thursday.

The four-member Senate Judiciary Committee will decide whether to kill the bill or move it forward, possibly amended, for a vote before the full Senate. The bill will need the support of three of the four committee members to survive because a tie vote is counted as a defeat.

The measure overwhelmingly passed the House this summer, 317 - 51, but was held up in the Senate when senators voted 14 - 10 to send it to the Senate Judiciary Committee for further study.

As of late last week, it was difficult to predict how the committee will vote Thursday.

Sen. Fenton Groen, a Rochester Republican who supports Northern Pass, said Friday he will support the bill because he believes the state Constitution prohibits private companies from using eminent domain.

Sen. Sharon Carson, a Londonderry Republican, said she too wants to protect property owners from losing their land to private projects. She said she has no position on Northern Pass and sees this bill as separate from that specific project. Carson said she's writing an amendment she hopes will more strongly project private property rights.

Committee Chairman, Sen. Matthew Houde, a Plainfield Democrat, said Friday he is undecided. Like Groen, Houde said the state spoke strongly in 2006 when 85.7 percent of voters supported amending the state Constitution to bar the use of eminent domain for private projects, which Northern Pass is.

However, Houde said, he doesn't want a law that would prohibit other private energy projects from using eminent domain if those projects would improve power reliability, serve the public or fulfill a need for more green energy. 'Let's take Northern Pass out of it,' Houde said. 'What about wind generation? To my understanding, those projects are needed not for system reliability, but they are helpful for meeting a renewable energy portfolio and going for more green energy. What are the implications for a blanket no (to preventing private projects from using eminent domain)?'

Houde said he is working on his own amendment that he hopes will resolve that concern.

Sen. Jim Luther, a Republican from Hollis, could not be reached.

The committee meeting, set for 1 p.m. in room 100 at the State House, is open to the public, but no public testimony will be taken. Houde said that's because the full Senate, as well as the House, already held public hearings. Still, there is bound to be an audience.

Northern Pass officials, whose $1.1 billion project would bring hydropower from Quebec, through New Hampshire and into the New England energy grid, have said they 'don't intend' to use eminent domain to acquire land for their transmission lines 'unless they have to.'

Statements like that have frightened and galvanized property owners and Northern Pass opponents even though state law and the state Constitution seemingly prevent Northern Pass from legally using eminent domain.

Northern Pass officials 'indicated early on that they thought they had the ability to use eminent domain,' said Jack Savage, spokesman for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, which opposes the project. 'They uttered the words, and when they uttered the words they angered property owners.'

Current state law prohibits the taking of a person's private land by eminent domain unless the project is for public use. Voters went further in 2006 in amending the state Constitution to specifically bar the use of eminent domain for 'private development or other private use of property.'

The pending legislation was meant to remove any doubt about whether Northern Pass or other private developers could take land by eminent domain. The proposed bill forbids a public utility from taking private land to build a transmission line if the line is not needed for system reliability.

Northern Pass officials have said the hydropower line will not 'keep the lights on' by improving system reliability. It's purpose, they have said, is to bring cleaner, cheaper hydropower to the New England market.

The bill going before the judiciary committee Thursday will look a little different. Sen. Jeanie Forrester, a Meredith Republican opposed to Northern Pass, has drafted an amendment that would also prevent public utilities from using eminent domain if they are a 'participant-funded transmission facility' like Northern Pass.

Houde said it's possible other committee members will introduce their own amendments. Carson hadn't written hers as of Friday evening but said her intention is to clarify and strengthen the rights of property owners.

Carson joined other lawmakers this summer on a trip to the North Country, where Northern Pass is particularly controversial because it would cut new pathways for transmission lines. In the rest of the state, the lines would run along existing rights of way. Carson said landowners told her they felt intimidated by Northern Pass officials when the were approached about selling land for the project.

Other lawmakers said have heard the same fears.

'I've heard this voiced time and time again,' said Groen. 'The parties involved in the Northern Pass have used the threat of eminent domain, and that concerns me.'

Forrester said she's received similar complaints from landowners. 'It's implied even if they don't use the words (eminent domain),' she said. 'They are skirting the edges on this thing. As they are buying up land, they are putting pressure on family members to get their relatives or neighbors to sell. It's, 'If you don't take this much for the land now, we will take it later and it will be much less.' '

Northern Pass officials could not be reached immediately Friday evening but have said previously that their real estate agents are instructed not to use the words eminent domain or imply that it will be used.

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


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