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Northern Pass opponents redirecting their fight

Last modified: 6/30/2013 11:56:42 PM
Like most everyone else following Northern Pass, the selectmen in Stewartstown had no idea before Thursday that project leaders had decided the solution to their route problems was running about eight miles of transmission line under local roads.

Selectman Allen Coates said he got word at 7:15 a.m. Thursday, about four hours before the news was made public, from Scott Mason, a North Stratford farmer working for Northern Pass. Hasen Burns, chairman of the selectmen, got a similar call.

“(Mason) said it was going to be on the news . . . that they were going to bury it under the town roads,” Coates said. “And then he proceeded to tell me how much money in taxes that would mean.”

The announcement Thursday hasn’t left the selectmen, whose town has voted twice to oppose Northern Pass, much time to explore a response. Ditto for other opponents, such as the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and lawmakers who’ve especially objected to Northern Pass’s plan to run its 187-mile transmission line atop towers taller than most trees.

Burns said one of the select board’s first calls will be to the town’s lawyer to learn who has control over the roads in Stewartstown that Northern Pass is eyeing. State transportation officials declined comment yesterday, but the state manual governing the authority and use of state and local roads suggests those are extremely complicated questions.

“I guess it’s safe to say that the general feeling of the board is that it’s the peoples’ roads, not us three selectmen’s roads,” Burns said. “The people will have their chance to vote on it, or at the very least have public hearing on it.”

Other opponents are looking to the Legislature, hoping there is time to rewrite the state’s energy policies in time to influence Northern Pass.

Gov. Maggie Hassan recently signed a Senate bill that could drastically rewrite the way the state’s Site Evaluation Committee decides whether to approve large energy projects like Northern Pass. And there are at least two legislative studies beginning this summer focused on energy policy. One looks at requiring elective transmission lines like Northern Pass to be buried; the other will explore putting future power lines within existing transportation corridors.

“It’s whether the state adopts policies that pay attention to protecting its greatest assets,” said Will Abbott, vice president for policy and land management for the forest society. “We think it’s possible to provide for New Hampshire’s and New England’s energy future without scarring the landscape. Strategically, it’s not just a battle against Northern Pass. It’s about the state’s future.”

Rep. Laurence Rappaport, a Colebrook Republican, sponsored the bills that led to study committees. Rappaport was also the lead sponsor of the bill passed last year that prohibited elective projects like Northern Pass from using eminent domain.

“All we are left up here with is tourism,” said Rappaport, after explaining that farming, logging and manufacturing have all died out. “I’m afraid (overhead transmission lines) would destroy what little we have left.”

Rappaport hopes the study committees, which he’s on, will produce legislation that can be introduced in January.

Lawmakers have gone down this road before. Sen. Jeanie Forrester, a Meredith Republican, said she’s been trying for three years to pass legislation improving the state’s approach to energy projects. Last year, she led a study commission that looked at requiring transmission lines to be buried along state roadways. The effort led nowhere, she said, because of opposition from energy lobbyists and state agencies that are involved in assessing energy projects now.

Forrester said yesterday the commission’s research left her convinced that Northern Pass, which is a partnership between Public Service of New Hampshire, Northeast Utilities and Hydro-Quebec, has not fully explored the possibility of burying all of its transmission line.

Northern Pass has said doing so would be prohibitively expensive. Bur Forrester said she’s talked with developers who have seen transmission lines buried elsewhere for distances longer than Northern Pass’s proposed 187 miles.

Forrester also led this year’s effort to study the way the state’s Site Evaluation Committee decides whether to approve projects like Northern Pass. One report evaluating the committee’s practices is due in December. The legislation also requires the committee to adopt new rules improving its process by January 2015.

Northern Pass officials said this week they intend to submit an application to the Site Review Committee in 2014. Forrester said yesterday she hopes the studies will produce new rules for the Site Evaluation Committee that allow the state and local towns more control over projects such as Northern Pass, including whether to require that transmission lines be buried.

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


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