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Northern Pass eyes underground crossing of protected land

Last modified: 6/19/2013 1:26:38 PM
Faced with a block in their route, Northern Pass officials have asked the state about crossing the protected Connecticut Lakes Headwaters – but doing it underground, the state attorney general’s office said yesterday, confirming what elected officials and environmental advocates have predicted for weeks.

The 146,000-acre property was conserved in 2003 under the bipartisan efforts of U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and former U.S. senator Judd Gregg. Suspecting Northern Pass was eyeing the land to solve a route problem, Shaheen and Gregg issued a joint statement earlier this month saying the headwaters land should be off-limits to the project. And last month, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests issued a 14-page legal opinion saying the easement’s restrictions prohibited Northern Pass from going “into, on, or under” the property.

The easement calls the area the “single most important land resource for the tourism and recreation economy” of the North Country and prohibits the building of structures on the property and any other development unless it furthers the conservation mission. Amendments to the easement can be proposed, but they still must maintain the conservation goal and receive state approval.

Jack Savage, the society’s spokesman, reiterated that view yesterday when told of Northern Pass’s meeting with the state. “It’s not the means, it’s the use that’s not allowed,” Savage said. “That’s like asking if I would be allowed to rob a bank if I used a squirt gun.” The news also brought responses from Shaheen’s office.

“Sen. Shaheen believes that the easement should be used to protect the Connecticut River Headwaters from commercial or industrial development that is unrelated to the traditional land uses of forestry and outdoor recreation,” said Shaheen spokeswoman Elizabeth Kenisberg. “Upholding our commitment to our state’s special places was and continues to be what’s in the best interest for New Hampshire, our citizens, economy and quality of life.”

No formal request

The state has not received a formal request for Northern Pass to cross the conservation easement in Stewartstown, where the Connecticut Lakes Headwaters separates nearly $40 million in other property Northern Pass has purchased for its proposed hydro-power line from Canada. But Northern Pass officials had two meetings with the attorney general’s office in late March and early April to discuss the possibility, said Anne Edwards, chief of staff.

“They came in and they outlined what their process was for laying out . . . lines and how they were going to do it,” Edwards said yesterday. “They had shown us a possibility of crossing the Connecticut Lakes Headwaters. If they asked to cross there, they said they would be willing to cross underground.”

Edwards said her office did not discuss the possibility of Northern Pass paying for access to the land. And she declined to say whether her office had formed an opinion on whether the 44-page easement deed would allow such use. She said her office would do a full legal analysis if it received a formal application to use the land.

Edwards said any application would have to come from the land’s owner, The ForestLand Group based in North Carolina, and go to the state Department of Resources and Economic Development, which holds the easement for the state. Commissioner Jeff Rose of DRED did not return a call or email yesterday, but Edwards said she does not believe an application has been submitted.

A call to The ForestLand Group, which manages the timber investment on the property, was not returned yesterday. Northern Pass spokesman Michael Skelton declined to comment on the project’s interest in the property.

“As we’ve always maintained, any new route we propose will, of course, be respectful of easements or restrictions governing land we may seek to use,” he said in an email. “We continue to consider and explore options regarding our new route in an effort to be responsive to public feedback we’ve received. We are not prepared at this time to discuss specific conversations we’ve had while in the process of finalizing our new route, which we look forward to sharing the details of in the near future.”

Protection a priority

Asked about Northern Pass’s interest in the easement property, Gov. Maggie Hassan’s spokesman said protecting the conservation easement is a top priority.

“In recent months, our office has met with as many stakeholders potentially impacted by Northern Pass as possible, including North Country community leaders, the conservation community, and families and landowners, as well as Northern Pass officials and proponents,” Marc Goldberg said in an email. “The governor fully understands that protecting the North Country’s beautiful vistas and natural resources is an important part of maintaining New Hampshire’s high quality of life and for keeping our tourism-driven economy strong. The state has a responsibility to uphold the terms of the Connecticut Lakes Headwaters conservation easement, and the governor takes that responsibility very seriously.”

Hassan “will continue to encourage Northern Pass officials to listen to the concerns of affected communities and to fully explore burying transmission lines in any future proposal in order to protect New Hampshire’s beautiful scenic views and natural resources,” Goldberg continued.

Northern Pass, a partnership between Northeast Utilities, Hydro-Quebec and Public Service of New Hampshire to bring hydro-power from Canada to the New England power grid, has been delayed several times as it has faced opposition to buying land.

The opposition is especially strong in the North Country, near the Connecticut Lakes Headwaters, where Northern Pass needs to clear a 40-mile corridor for its high-voltage transmission lines. Project officials made their first land purchase in 2011, spending $55,000 for 40 acres in Pittsburg, and its most recent in May, spending the same amount on 4½ acres. Other purchases this year include $5 million for 319 acres in Clarksville and $4 million for about 20 acres in Stewartstown.

But at least two significant gaps remain – at the Connecticut Lakes Headwaters and in Pittsburg, where the forest society has a conservation easement between two properties owned by Northern Pass.

The forest society and others have called on Northern Pass to bury the line, especially in the North Country where views are far less obstructed by development. Northern Pass officials have said that option is too expensive.

Yesterday, Savage characterized Northern Pass’s willingness to bury its line under the Connecticut Lakes Headwaters property as self-serving. “Interesting that they are willing to consider burial when they think it might solve their problems or suit their needs,” he said.

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


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