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Concord could become consulting party in Northern Pass project

Last modified: 9/10/2013 5:19:05 PM
The City of Concord will seek to become a consulting party in the Northern Pass project.

The council voted last night to submit a request to the U.S. Department of Energy that would allow the city to weigh in on the project’s impact in Concord.

“We would be a consulting party to the process of where they’re putting lines, what’s going on in the bounds of our city,” said City Solicitor Jim Kennedy.

Mayor Jim Bouley said he supported Concord becoming a consulting party. He said the proposed route maps show power lines near residents’ backyards and “practically on their porch.”

The vote does not mean that the council has taken a position on Northern Pass, and Councilor Steve Shurtleff noted that the city council does not have the power to vote on plans for the Northern Pass project.

But Councilor Dan St. Hilaire said he was worried about the placement of specific hydropower lines through Concord. He said he attended the Northern Pass open house in Concord last week and spoke with constituents who learned that power lines would be built close to their homes.

“And so anything we can do as councilors to gain this status and then use that as leverage to at least look at pole placement to make it a little bit more palatable for the neighborhoods at least in Ward 10, I would support,” St. Hilaire said. “And again, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m against Northern Pass, but let’s have some leverage so we can talk about placement.”

The proposed project is a partnership between Public Service of New Hampshire, Northeast Utilities and Hydro-Quebec. It would bring hydropower from Canada, through New Hampshire and into the New England energy grid.

The city already submitted a letter about Northern Pass to the U.S. Department of Energy in June. In that letter, City Manager Tom Aspell said the conservation commission and the planning board are worried about the project’s impact on Concord’s “character and property values.” The conservation commission has expressed opposition to the entire project, and the planning board has suggested the power lines be buried through Concord.

Councilor Rob Werner asked the council last night to consider becoming an intervenor in the project.

“It’s come to my attention that it would be perhaps beneficial for the city to gain intervenor status with the project in order to be in a position to get the most up-to-date and accurate information about the project as it develops,” Werner said.

Councilor Jan McClure recused herself from the conversation and vote about Northern Pass last night. She works for the Nature Conservancy, which she said may also become an intervenor in the Northern Pass project.

Money on Main Street

The city council accepted a tax credit grant for its Main Street redesign project last night, and authorized issuing more than $1 million in bonds to pay for the remaining private sector portion.

The item passed 13-1; Councilor Liz Blanchard voted against it and Councilor Dick Patten left the meeting before the vote.

But councilors did not decide how to pay for the bonds last night; City Manager Tom Aspell said the council will need to make that decision by January.

Concord received a $4.71 million federal grant to redesign its Main Street, and the city and the private sector each must contribute an additional match of $1.57 million.

For the remaining private sector portion, the council could choose to pay off the bond through general fund, which is fueled by property tax revenue, establish a special assessment district to charge downtown property owners an annual fee for 20 years or pay off the bond through the Sears Block Tax Increment Finance District.

The tax credit grant came from the state’s Community Development Finance Authority, which awarded the city $700,000, or half of what it had requested. The credits allow businesses to donate to the city’s project and receive a 75 percent business tax credit. After administrative fees, $560,000 can be used toward the project.

Concord developer Steve Duprey will also contribute toward the private sector amount. He had an agreement with the city make street and sidewalk improvements in front of his newest building on South Main Street. Those improvements will be made during the Main Street project, and the amount Duprey would have spent will go toward the private sector contribution.

The exact amount of Duprey’s contribution has not been determined, according to a report from Matt Walsh, director of redevelopment, downtown services and special projects.

Construction on the $10.35 million Main Street renovation project had been set to begin this month. But the city only received a bid from one construction company, with an estimate that was double the budgeted amount.

Deputy City Manager for Development Carlos Baia said that bid has been rejected. The project will be re-bid, and streetscape construction will begin next spring.

Blanchard, who voted against accepting the tax credits, said she was concerned about the progress of the Main Street project. She also voted against the final designs for the entire project at a special council meeting in June.

“I think there’s still too many unanswered questions and many of my concerns were the same as they were when I voted against the project to begin with,” she said.

Work to move utility lines underground on South Main Street is still scheduled to begin this fall.

School district spending

Also last night, Blanchard asked what steps the city council must take to have “final say on the Concord School District budget.”

Blanchard’s request for the city’s legal department to research the matter was put on hold. Kennedy said the council would have to approve her request, and Bouley asked that he could see it in writing next month.

The school board’s refusal to take a position on the city’s BearCat grant application was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Blanchard said.

Blanchard represents Ward 1 in Penacook, which is the only part of the city in the Merrimack Valley School District. She did not ask for formal action against the Concord School District, but rather an outline of steps through which the city council could take control of the school budget.

Merrimack Valley Superintendent “Mike Martin recognizes the need for police and fire protection . . . he did encourage the council to accept the (BearCat) grant,” Blanchard said. “But nevertheless, it seems to be that Concord School District wants to separate themselves entirely from the city, and I really think this is something that really should be considered.”

(Laura McCrystal can be reached at 369-3312 or lmccrystal@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @lmccrystal.)


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