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Concord planning board to Northern Pass: Bury the lines

Last modified: 4/8/2013 8:24:04 AM
Concord’s planning board has told city councilors it wants Northern Pass to bury any power lines that run near Concord homes. Meanwhile, the city’s conservation commission has gone further, saying it opposes the project because it has “questionable value.”

Only one other community at this end of the proposed 180-mile hydropower line from Canada has taken a similar position. In March, Deerfield residents voted to oppose the project and, if it proceeds, to require that the lines be buried. The proposed line would run from Canada to Deerfield, where it would connect with the New England energy grid.

Since the project was announced in late 2010, most of the opposition has come from northern New Hampshire, where the high-voltage lines will require 40 miles of new clearings before the line could connect with an existing transmission corridor.

The Concord City Council is expected to accept the written conclusions from the planning board and conservation commission at tonight’s city council meeting but not debate the proposed hydropower line or take its own position, said Mayor Jim Bouley.

There are, in fact, limits to the city’s authority over the project, which needs federal and state permits, but not local approvals.

The planning board and conservation commission came to their positions recently, after hearing from residents of McKenna’s Purchase, a condominium development off Loudon Road that abuts the proposed Northern Pass route.

About eight miles of the proposed route would cut through East Concord, between Canterbury and Pembroke. The transmission lines would be placed within the existing right of way that already has power lines, but the towers supporting the lines are expected to be considerably taller than those there now.

Another route?

Several weeks ago, residents from McKenna’s Purchase, some of whom have formed a Northern Pass committee, urged planning board and conservation commission members to ask that transmission line be placed elsewhere in the city. They preferred a route proposed in an earlier Northern Pass map that showed the line coming through Concord but avoided them and the Concord airport by going through the Taylor State Forest and into Chichester.

While McKenna’s Purchase is already neighbors with the transmission line corridor, residents said they fear they’ll lose the buffer they have now when the right of way is widened to accommodate an additional line. Residents Scott Smith, Paul Susca and Eugene Rudolf also told planning and conservation officials they had health concerns about living so close to high-voltage lines.

But the other route they prefer is most likely off the table.

Northern Pass’s owners – Northeast Utilities, Public Service of New Hampshire and Hydro-Quebec – have gotten clearance from federal aviation officials to run their line near the airport, which eliminates the need for that alternative path.

According to minutes from a February planning board meeting, board member Carol Foss suggested the city look more closely at the entire route through Concord because it will also run near other neighborhoods, including Alton Woods and Turtle Pond housing developments.

Foss could not be reached for comment Friday.

Planning board member John Swope, a longtime member of the Northeast Utilities board, spoke in favor of the project at the meeting, according to the minutes, saying it would help alleviate the region’s dependence on natural gas. He does not recall disclosing his connection to Northeast Utilities and the minutes don’t reflect he did, but city planner Gloria McPherson said Friday that she recalled him doing so.

During the meeting, Swope also reminded the board that the city could comment on the project but had no authority over it. However, McPherson said in an interview Friday that the city’s planning board can weigh in on any impacts to natural resources and request the lines be buried. Though it cannot block such a project, she said.

Reached Friday, Swope, who retired from the Northeast Utilities board in April, said that while he supports Northern Pass, he has decided that the transmission lines should be buried where they abut homes.

At its February meeting, the conservation commission decided that if the project goes through Concord, it should stay within the existing power line that runs near McKenna’s Purchase because another route would require new clearings.

A surprise position

But in the conservation commission’s letter to city councilors, the group said it opposes the project regardless of where it goes. The letter also asks city officials to research the legality of using existing rights of way for Northern Pass lines, which are of a higher voltage than the lines there now.

Members also noted an internal study released by the Appalachian Mountain Club in September saying more towers would be visible from more places in Concord than anywhere else on the entire route. According to the AMC’s report, nearly 60 towers would be visible for up to two miles and just more than 100 would be visible for up to 10 miles.

Northern Pass officials dispute the AMC’s findings.

“There are indications that the power (from Northern Pass) is not needed,” read the letter from the conservation commission to city councilors. “Northern Pass is of questionable value on many fronts: unproven demand, climate change impact and effects of new or expanded power line construction. The conservation commission feels that because of these negative impacts, coupled with the local impacts on open space properties and the residents of Concord, the project should not be built.”

Christopher Morgan, chairman of the conservation commission, said Friday that the board’s position was unanimous.

“After the (McKenna’s Purchase) folks came in, we discussed the project in general and what our position should be,” Morgan said. “People felt that we should take a position, and (we) decided for many reasons that it’s not a good project.”

The commission’s position came as a surprise to Northern Pass officials.

Told about it Friday, Northern Pass spokesman Michael Skelton said project officials have not yet discussed the project with the city’s conservation commission. And, Skelton said, project leaders have met several times with residents at McKenna’s Purchase to walk the right of way near their homes and discuss ways to mitigate their concerns about visibility.

“An opportunity for dialogue with the project would have provided commission members with the latest and most accurate information, as we are in the process of updating our original proposal and announcing a new route,” Skelton said in an email. The route through East Concord, however, has not been changed, according to the project’s website.

Skelton said project leaders have met with city hall officials several times to keep them updated on the project. He also noted in his email that the project is predicted to generate $775,000 in new property taxes a year for the city.

“The project is committed to working with landowners and communities to obtain feedback and address their concerns,” Skelton wrote

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


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