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July 31. 2013 10:57PM

Forest society tells Northern Pass: Hey, we own land under Route 3

Northern Pass partners may think momentum is shifting in their favor after announcing a new route in June for hydroelectric transmission lines through the North Country, but the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests believes it still has an ace up its sleeve.

The society claims it owns the land under Route 3 along the Connecticut River between Pittsburg and Clarksville, where PSNH has proposed burying the 1,200-megawatt power lines intended to carry hydroelectric power from Quebec into New England.

“We own the land that they want to go underground on, and we are not a willing landowner,” said society spokesman Jack Savage. “So it’s unclear to us and our attorneys how they might be able to do this without some entity exercising some form of eminent domain.”

Northern Pass partners will challenge that assertion, said Martin Murray, a spokesman for PSNH.

“We disagree with the Forest Society’s evaluation of the issue,” he said. “We are confident that we have proposed a legitimate crossing of Route 3 that respects all easements and is in keeping with state law. We are also disappointed to learn that the Forest Society, after calling for Northern Pass to use more underground construction, is now actively working to block the use of underground construction.”

Murray also took issue with the notion that eminent domain could come into play.

“Raising the false specter of eminent domain is both misleading and disingenuous,” he said. “State law addressed this more than a year ago.” The Legislature passed HB 648 in 2011, prohibiting for-profit utility projects from using eminent domain to take private land.

Expecting approvals

In a wide-ranging conference call with investment analysts on Tuesday, executives for Northeast Utilities said they were confident that all state and federal approvals for the project would be in hand by mid-2015, which would put the project on track for completion by 2017.

The Department of Energy is continuing its work on a draft environmental impact statement necessary for the presidential permit, according to Leon J. Olivier, executive vice president and chief operating officer.

“As soon as that draft is complete, we will use it as part of our application with the New Hampshire site evaluation committee,” he said. “Once we file that application, the site evaluation committee will review and adjudicate it. Our plan has both the state and federal permitting processes complete by mid-2015. On that schedule, we expect to bring the project into service around mid-2017.”

Officials from PSNH, a Northeast Utilities subsidiary, announced a new route for the northernmost 40-mile section of the transmission project in June, with plans to bury eight miles of line through the most controversial areas.

The plan calls for laying the line underground along Route 3 where the highway crosses the Connecticut River between the Canadian border towns of Pittsburg and Clarksville.

Much of the line would have to be buried in sections of Route 3 that cross through an area known as the Washburn Family Forest, consisting of 2,128 acres in Clarksville purchased in 2008 from Malcolm Washburn and family.

The Forest Society raised $2.8 million to conserve the land and cover all transaction costs.

Immediately after the new route was announced, the Forest Society went to work researching its rights under Route 3 in the Washburn area.

“We’ve been doing research to find out exactly what the state owns and what we own and what other rights of way exist and so forth,” Savage said. That research revealed that the Forest Society owns the land under Route 3, and under the Connecticut River, in the Washburn Forest area, according to the Forest Society.

Select Boards briefed

Representatives of the Forest Society met with the Select Boards of Pittsburg and Clarksville in a joint session earlier this week, at their invitation, “and we shared this information with them,” Savage said.

When asked why the society had not previously brought this issue forward, Savage said the research was only recently concluded.

“We wanted to make sure we were right, that we in fact owned that land,” he said. “We wanted to take a close look at exactly what (Northern Pass) was proposing. Roads are very, very complex, and that’s one of the reasons it’s taken our attorneys a little while to research this issue. We now have a clearer understanding of exactly what rights and ownership we believe that we have.”

Olivier told stock analysts on Tuesday that reaction to the new route has been very positive. “We see a building consensus in the polls that were taken,” he said. “We see a rise in support for the project.”

Northern Pass opponent Nancy Martland of Sugar Hill says she was surveyed in what she described as a “push poll.”

“The call pushes the need for power and renewables, the standard Northern Pass talking points, and asks if you favor,” she said. “These are live calls, not robo.”

The news of the Forest Society’s potential “blocking action” comes as PSNH prepares to host a series of open forums in North Country communities between Aug. 5 and Aug. 21, with sessions scheduled in Millsfield, Stark, West Stewartstown, Pittsburg and Groveton.

“This is really all about creating a better understanding of the value of the project,” Northeast Utilities President and CEO Thomas May told analysts.dsolomon@unionleader.com


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