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Northern Pass hits roadblocks

Last modified: 3/11/2012 12:00:00 AM
Northern Pass officials recently told investment analysts they had acquired a "substantial" chunk of the North Country land needed for a hydropower line from Canada. That's not untrue. Analysts, however, didn't hear the rest of the story.

The project is having trouble bridging significant gaps in that most controversial part of the route because many landowners have refused to sell. Landowners like David and Karen Placey, a Merrimack couple in their 50s, rejected $1 million in October for their 230 acres in Stewartstown.

Karen Placey finally told the broker to stop calling. And it wasn't because the couple couldn't use the money: She works for a plumbing company, he for a builder.

"I've never seen a million dollars, so I'm not going to miss it," she said. "The land we are talking about has been in my husband's family since 1898. I grew up in Pittsburg and have my family home there. This is something we want to keep for our children."

There are at least a dozen landowners north and south of the Placeys' property who have said the same. One of them is Bill Weir Sr., 72, of Colebrook. He doesn't know what Northern Pass would have paid for his 20 to 30 acres in Stewartstown because he refused to meet the broker.

"A woman called and said she had someone interested in buying my land and that he had plenty of money," Weir said. "I told her I wasn't interested in selling. She was a little bit persistent, but she's not so persistent as I am."

Northern Pass, a $1.1 billion collaboration between Hydro-Quebec and Northeast Utilities, would deliver hydropower to the New England energy grid via a 180-mile transmission line through New Hampshire. From Groveton south, the line would run along existing rights of way owned by Public Service of New Hampshire.

The project is facing some opposition there but not nearly to the same degree as in the northernmost part of the state. One landowner there said that clearing land for 135-foot transmission towers would be a "awful gash" on the landscape.

Northern Pass officials withdrew one proposed North Country route early last year in response to objections from locals. They had said they would announce a new route by the end of 2011, but the time came and went without that announcement, and there has been no further indication when it might come.

Martin Murray, spokesman for Northern Pass, acknowledged Friday that the northern section of the route is taking longer to negotiate than expected. But that's no indication, Murray said, the project is in trouble.

"Nothing that we've encountered in New Hampshire suggests to us that we won't be able to acquire rights for a new route," Murray said. "People are willing to sell their land or easements (across it)."

Asked about gaps in the developing route created by people like Weir and the Placeys, Murray said, "We still have some work to do."

He added, "It's appropriate to take the necessary time to talk to people and explain what the project is and what it is not. And for people to take the time to decide whether they want to sell their land or easements (over it)."

 Missing links

Property sales records show that Northern Pass has spent about $9.5 million for land or easements in Pittsburg, Clarksville, Stewartstown, Columbia and Colebrook.

If you plot those sold parcels on a map along with the "gap" lots landowners say they won't sell, a necklace of sorts emerges - one with missing beads.

Two of those belong to Weir and the Placeys. Two others are held by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, which owns property rights in two key locations.

One sits near the Canadian border, where Northern Pass has bought land in Pittsburg for its U.S. starting point. The other, secured by the forest society in December, is across the Balsams resort property in Dixville. Northern Pass had hoped to cross over that property into unpopulated timber forest, where buying land could be easier.

Had that plan succeeded, Northern Pass might have easily skirted down the eastern side of the Balsams property and connected to an existing transmission line near Dixville Notch. Getting to that existing transmission line now will mean negotiating with multiple landowners rather than a few.

But Jack Savage, spokesman for the forest society, said Northern Pass has route problems beyond just there, especially now that Gov. John Lynch has signed a law preventing a private project like Northern Pass from taking land through eminent domain.

Next to the forest society land at the Canadian border sits a 300-acre lot owned by a California woman who told the Monitor she also has no intention of selling to Northern Pass.

"Without eminent domain, we think they have little to no chance of getting through the North Country," Savage said last week. "And we think that's important for landowners to know because (Northern Pass's) approach has been, 'This is going to happen. This is a done deal.' "

In their recent discussion with investment analysts, Northeast Utilities officials noted the new eminent domain legislation but told them it wouldn't hurt the project because they hadn't expected to exercise that power to acquire land.

The challenge ahead is public relations, Leon Oliver, chief executive officer of PSNH, told the analysts.

"Clearly, we need to demonstrate political support for the project in the state," Oliver said, according to a transcript of the conference call. "Although, in our surveying, we think the support of the project continues to rise with the citizens of New Hampshire, continues to rise with legislators."

Oliver continued, "We need to finalize that route and then work on gaining additional political support."

 No, no, no

Rod McAllister, a 59-year-old dairy farmer in Stewartstown, hopes project officials finally give up trying to win his support.

McAllister, with his wife, Donna, works the land that his father and grandfather had farmed before him. He's got about 150 cows and 1,500 acres.

McAllister pays $16,000 a year in taxes and subsists mostly on dairy farming, a job so demanding he's never taken a vacation.

"We are not really die-hard in love with cows," McAllister said. "I don't mind them, but we have to have them to stay here."

What McAllister is is die-hard in love with is his land. The first time Northern Pass called for a piece of that land, McAllister told the broker, "Don't bother, I'm not interested. Don't waste your time."

McAllister didn't return the broker's second call. Then, around Christmas, a more senior broker showed up at the couple's house, unannounced. Donna and Rod McAllister remember feeling they'd been researched before that meeting.

"He knew my maiden name and where my father worked," Donna McAllister said. "And he knew Rod collected guns. Stuff you wouldn't get from (public) town hall records."

The McAllister said the broker tried to use those personal details to make small talk. "The man said he collected guns too," Rod McAllister said. "I told him, 'Well, we can talk guns, but that's not going to change anything.' "

This time, the broker offered McAllister a land swap instead of money. If McAllister agreed to have towers and high voltage lines on his property, he'd get more property somewhere else than he was giving up.

Had the broker walked any of McAllister's property with him, he would have known the answer.

What looks like fields and timberland to most people is a family scrapbook to McAllister.

He points to the location of a long-gone schoolhouse, the only red one in the country at the time. He knows where a house sat before it was moved down the hill in the 1800s. A mile up the road from his place sits the house his grandfather grew up in.

He'll show you photos of those relatives sitting in front of that house. And then the bed that always sat in the spare bedroom. It's in his spare bedroom now.

McAllister said no to the land swap.

"I like all the people who have sold," he said. "But I'm actually a little disappointed in the ones that sold. I would like to stress that fact that they do have the right to sell, and I respect that right. But I also have the right not to sell."

Climbing that road to the family homestead is the best way to see the North Country landscape and understand McAllister's objection to Northern Pass's proposed towers. It's a country of ridges and valleys, where little interrupts the view for miles.

McAllister said some who have sold told him they did so because Northern Pass officials convinced them the line was going through with or without them. McAllister said a cousin who sold was told he could look at towers on his neighbors' property for no compensation or have them on his land and get paid.

"If we had held together, I think it would have stopped this at the start," he said.

 'It would be a betrayal'

Marty and Janice Kaufman are Stewartstown newcomers by McAllister's standards.

They arrived in the 1970s, first as visitors and 10 years later as landowners. Marty was finishing his tour in Vietnam and the couple was consumed with the need for land.

Living in New York City while Marty finished his psychiatry residency, they looked in California and Colorado for property. Friends from the city were camping in Stewartstown and invited the Kaufmans up.

They sort of never left.

The couple met Burleigh Placey, whose local titles included sheriff and "protector of the poor." In no time, Placey put Marty Kaufman's medical training (he was a doctor in the military) to use doing house calls.

"I'd treat people in their kitchens, on the floor," he said. "They'd pay me in tea or big bundles of herbs.

"The quality of life here was very healing," Marty Kaufman said.

"We felt like we needed that after the Vietnam War," Janice Kaufman added.

The Kaufmans eventually bought a large plot of land - about 350 acres. They kept 100 acres and sold the rest to three friends they knew from New York City. Thirty years later, they are still neighbors and friends.

From the Kaufmans' kitchen window, the Balsams land can be seen in the distance.

Not so long ago, Marty Kaufman got a Northern Pass call, but not the one he'd been expecting. Burleigh Placey's daughters, whose late father's land abuts the Kaufmans', told them they were selling to Northern Pass.

It was a courtesy call with heartbreak on both sides of the line, Marty Kaufman said.

"They told me they remembered calling me when their dad was ill," he said. "But they are offering us half a million dollars (one of them said). Here I am in Manchester taking care of people's hair for a living, and I don't even have health insurance, and these people want to give me a fortune. I don't know what to do."

Marty Kaufman becomes emotional when talking about Burleigh Placey and Rod McAllister and their deep connection to their land.

He knows what he would say if Northern Pass called. "There's no question in my mind that I would not sell," he said. "But I'm a doctor, so I will survive. But my neighbors . . ."

He continues, "Burleigh used to say we are the stewards of this land. It would be a betrayal to let this (project) go through."

Kaufman knows not all his neighbors are able to make the same choice. But he hopes enough of them will.

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


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