Golf course's suit targets Northern Pass accord
Tucked in the foothills of the White Mountain National Forest, with panoramic views of the Cannon and Lafayette mountains and other 4,000-footers, Owl's Nest Resort & Golf Club's appeal is grounded in the beauty of its natural surroundings.
Now, owners allege in a lawsuit filed last week, the 18-hole championship golf course is threatened with extinction by the prospect the Northern Pass power line project will get the permits necessary to slice through the course and residences that are the lifeblood of the 650-acre resort in Campton and Thornton.
Public Service of New Hampshire and its parent company, Northeast Utilities, unveiled plans in October 2010 to use the easement to build Northern Pass. The project would carry 1,200 megawatts of Canadian hydropower to the New England power grid.
No work has been done on the easement PSNH negotiated and obtained on Owl's Nest's property in 2007. But PSNH's announcement of its plan has brought land and housing sales to a standstill, said Thomas Mullen, who owns Owl Street Associates LLC with his business partner, Walter E. Lankau Jr.
PSNH spokesman Michael Skelton said neither the utility nor Northern Pass Transmission have been formally served with the complaint.
"If there are legitimate legal issues that deserve consideration, the court is the proper forum for that discussion, not the newspaper. We believe, however, that the 2007 Easement Deed provides PSNH with clear legal rights, and we will respond to the issues in the legal proceeding," Skelton said in an email.
Annual sales of land, houses, townhouses and condominiums, which hit $3.59 million and $3.194 million in 2008 and 2009, respectively, have been stuck at zero since 2011, Mullen said Friday.
"We have not sold a single property.... We can't survive without selling real estate," Mullen said.
"No one will buy the property. The threat of Northern Pass looms so large and casts such a shadow over this property that nobody will buy it," he said.
Mullen, Lankau and Owl Street Associates LLC filed a civil suit Tuesday in Grafton County Superior Court in North Haverhill against PSNH, Northern Pass Transmission and Northeast Utilities. The suit asks the court to grant an injunction to stop the utilities from making claims over the property and settle "once and for all that they are claiming rights they do not have," said Hopkinton attorney Arthur B. Cunningham.
The suit seeks a jury trial.
In 2010, Owl's Nest Resort & Golf Club was appraised at $23 million and employed about 70 people, Mullen said.
"I'm hearing appraisal numbers now of $2 million to $3 million," he said. The resort is "way behind" on its mortgage and faces foreclosure. It owes about $380,000 in property taxes, and only about 30 people work there.
"It's been devastating. I'm about to turn 70 years old. I have put every penny I own into keeping Owl's Nest afloat in the last few years, as has my partner," Mullen said.
"If something doesn't happen pretty quickly, we are going to bite the dust here because we can't keep the place open," Mullen said.
At issue is the 2007 easement PSNH obtained on the property. According to Cunningham and Mullen, PSNH approached Owl's Nest owners in 2006 seeking to relocate the 14,000-linear-foot easement it held on the property on which it ran electrical power lines on a set of 43-foot wooden utility poles.
Mullen said PSNH assured him any new development in the renegotiated easement would be to the same scale as the existing poles and agreed to add language that would preserve the aesthetics of the resort.
But the agreement not only significantly expanded PSNH's rights to build transmission towers up to 135 feet, it also gave PSNH rights to build below, on and above ground, install piping and use the area as a construction staging site, Cunningham said.
"They told him they weren't going to make it bigger, but the easement agreement gave them rights way, way beyond" what typically were contained in easements that dated back to the early 1950s, Cunningham said.
"We will have to do discovery on when this plan started for Northern Pass," Cunningham said. "The contention here is they came to him to renegotiate this deal and got all these additional usage rights and did not tell him what the plan was. We are going to ask the court to restore the rights that existed prior to this new easement."
Speaking generally, Skelton noted PSNH "has a long history of working successfully with neighbors along our rights of way on agreements that allow them to use the property for activities that don't affect the transmission or delivery of electricity. We believe that existing power line rights of way can coexist, as they have for many decades, with neighboring homes and businesses, such as golf courses."