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Senate to sort out domain bills

Last modified: 1/18/2012 12:00:00 AM
On short notice yesterday, the Senate postponed today's vote on a controversial eminent domain bill that would challenge the Northern Pass project, giving senators more time to make sense of competing amendments. The delay left one of the bill's sponsors more assured of a victory for land owner protection, she said.

Meanwhile, a Northern Pass lobbyist told a House committee yesterday he thinks the hydropower project would qualify for eminent domain even though it's a private development, because the energy will benefit the public.

State law and the state constitution prohibit private projects like Northern Pass from taking land by eminent domain, and until yesterday Northern Pass officials have refused to say whether they'd ask for an exception citing a public benefit.

In a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, Northern Pass lobbyist Donald Pfundstein, an attorney, said Northern Pass does not intend to ask the state Public Utilities Commission to use eminent domain but said if it does, the state will have to decide whether the project's public good "outweighs" the burden of landowners losing their land.

Republican Rep. Robert Rowe of Amherst, who chairs the judiciary committee, asked Pfundstein if he considered Northern Pass's energy to be a qualifying public benefit.

Pfundstein replied, "New Hampshire will receive a significant benefit as a result of Northern Pass. The (state Public Utilities Commission) could say Northern Pass constitutes a public benefit."

Pfundstein's comments raise questions that won't be decided soon, especially with the Senate postponing its vote on eminent domain until next Wednesday.

Yesterday, the Dupont Group, which represents New England Power Generators Association, a Northern Pass rival, released poll results that show nearly 70 percent of the 500 people questioned object to Northern Pass getting eminent domain power.

The poll was conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center in late September and early October.

Northern Pass, a private energy project between HydroQuebec in Canada, Northeast Utilities and Public Service of New Hampshire, would bring hydropower from Canada to New England.

The proposed 180-mile route, which still needs federal and state approvals, would cut a new route through northern New Hampshire but run along PSNH's existing transmission corridor south of Groveton.

Project officials are building the northern route now by buying land in the North Country at premium prices from landowners.

Northern Pass spokesman Martin Murray has said the project intends to put the entire route together that way, eliminating the need to take land by eminent domain.

But Northern Pass opponents and some state lawmakers are unwilling to leave that to chance and are backing several bills that aim to more clearly bar private energy developments from using eminent domain. The two main amendments will go before senators next week.

One, sponsored by Senate President Peter Bragdon of Milford and Sen. Jeanie Forrester of Meredith, both Republicans, would prohibit public utilities from taking land by eminent domain if the project is a private development or "participant-funded," meaning a project not paid for by ratepayers. Northern Pass, as proposed, would be paid for by HydroQuebec and provide revenue for Northeast Utilities and Public Service of New Hampshire.

A second amendment, proposed by Republican Sen. Jeb Bradley of Wolfeboro, would allow a public utility to request use of eminent domain for a electric transmission project like Northern Pass only if the Public Utilities Commission finds the project improves the system's reliability, lowers electricity rates in the state or provides an environmental benefit in the state.

Bradley's proposal would also forbid a developer from suggesting they will use eminent domain in land negotiations unless the commission has already authorized its use.

Opponents have cautioned senators against passing a bill that targets Northern Pass but has unintended consequences for other private energy projects like wind farms and smaller hydropower proposals.

Jack Savage, spokesman for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, which opposes Northern Pass, challenged that argument yesterday. He said at least four private wind generation projects have been started in the last few years without the use of eminent domain. In each case, the developers bought the land they needed.

Forrester said yesterday she is optimistic senators will use the extra time to study both bills and "come down on the right side of landowner rights."

Bragdon also said the voting date was moved to give senators more time with the bills.

The delay is not the result of lobbying by Northern Pass, Forrester said.

"I feel very confident in our legislation," she said.

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


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