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Northern Pass Announces Plans to Bury Lines

After months of delay, Northern Pass officials unveiled a new route through the North Country yesterday that casts aside much of the $40 million in land they’ve purchased since 2011 and instead takes the line under the Connecticut River as well as under state and local roads in Clarksville and Stewartstown.

The new route avoids the Connecticut Lakes Headwaters conservation easement, land Gov. Maggie Hassan said last week couldn’t be used. It would also get Northern Pass around conservation easements put in its way by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.

But Northern Pass still needs state approval to go under state and local roads, and there was disagreement yesterday about how research project leaders have done on that front. And there were calls from elected leaders and environmental groups for Northern Pass to bury all of its proposed line, not just some of it.

“It is encouraging to see that Northern Pass officials listened to people across New Hampshire and are not proposing to violate the Connecticut Lakes Headwaters easement,” Hassan said in a statement. “But it is clear that many questions remain regarding the impacts that the proposed project could have on the White Mountain National Forest, as well as on New Hampshire’s economy, environment, natural resources, communities and people.”

Hassan added, “I continue to believe that project officials must more fully explore options for burying more of the lines.”

Until yesterday, Northern Pass officials had said burying lines was not an option because of the expense and the rugged landscape in the North Country. Yesterday, Gary Long, president of Public Service of New Hampshire, said the project is willing to bury eight of the proposed route’s 187 miles to mitigate concerns about the visual impact of transmission towers.

Doing so will add more than $100 million in costs to the $1.2 billion project, Long said. He hopes the investment will mitigate North Country concerns about the visibility of the 135-foot transmission towers.

“Underground is expensive,” Long said. “It’s not something you do lightly. It does recognize the concerns we had.”

Completely New

The route announced yesterday replaces an original route Northern Pass proposed in 2011 but quickly withdrawn after it received fierce objection from North Country residents and environmental groups.

The proposed project, a partnership between PSNH, Northeast Utilities and Hydro-Quebec, would bring hydropower from Canada, through New Hampshire into the New England energy grid. All of the 31 North Country towns along the original proposed route voted to oppose the project at town meetings in 2011 and 2012.

Since then, Northern Pass leaders have promised to share a new route several times but have delayed as they’ve struggled to purchase enough contiguous pieces of land in the North Country to accommodate 40 miles of new transmission lines.

The lower 147 miles, including a passage through Concord, would go along PSNH’s existing power lines. Although, environmental groups have said they will challenge Northern Pass’s use of the existing power line corridor.

Property sales records show that Northern Pass has been buying land in the North Country since May 2011 to accommodate a new line. Project leaders have spent more than $40 million, spending as much as $4 million for 20 acres in Stewartstown in April.

But project leaders hit a hurdle at the Connecticut Lakes Headwaters conservation easement in Stewartstown that they couldn’t get over. The easement separated property the project owned to the north and south, and Hassan, as well as other elected officials, made clear they’d fight any effort by Northern Pass to cross the land.

Yesterday, Long said the new route reflects Northern Pass’s decision to abandon that course and seek the use of state and local roads for its project. Compared with the original route, the path proposed yesterday goes through less populated areas, Long said. That means 31 properties will have overhead transmission towers, not 186 properties as expected with the original route.

The new route decision means Northern Pass now owns “thousands of acres” in the North Country it won’t use for its proposed route. Long said the project will hold onto the property and possibly use some of it for recreational projects if local towns are interested.

Approval Still Needed

The project still needs federal and state permits as well as specific state approval for the transmission lines to run under state and local roads. And there was a disagreement yesterday between Northern Pass officials and state transportation officials over how much Northern Pass has discussed burying lines with the state Department of Transportation.

Northern Pass spokesman Michael Skelton said yesterday that project officials have had “ongoing” discussions with the state Department of Transportation about its plans to bury lines.

When asked for details of the meetings and participants, Skelton said Northern Pass officials had “an informational meeting” with transportation officials about crossing under the Connecticut River and nearby Route 3 in Pittsburg, but provided no specifics.

But Bill Boynton, spokesman for the department, said he was unaware of any conversations.

“The New Hampshire Department of Transportation has not received any applications from Northern Pass,” Boynton said in an email. “We learned about the current proposed route today through media reports, along with everyone else.”

Project leaders have also not discussed burying the lines with town officials in Clarksville and Stewartstown, where 7½ miles of the line would be buried, Long said.

Long said existing state law and permitting processes allow Northern Pass to pursue burying lines under state and local roads. Long said the local towns can offer input but that the final decision will be made by the state Site Evaluation Committee. Long said Northern Pass doesn’t plan to file its permit request with the Site Evaluation Committee in 2014.

Responses From All Sides

The response came quickly — from all sides of the Northern Pass debate yesterday.

The president of the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce and Franklin Mayor Ken Merrifield joined Long at yesterday’s press conference. Chamber President Robin Comstock said Northern Pass’s hydropower will lower energy costs for the states’ businesses. Merrifield, whose city would host the project’s $250 million convertor station, said the $6.3 million expected annually in local property taxes would allow Franklin to rewrite its future.

Organized labor leaders also praised the project for the jobs it would create.

But elected leaders urged Northern Pass to bury more of the proposed route.

“Protecting New Hampshire’s pristine landscape is inextricably linked to preserving our state’s identity as well as a key source of economic strength,” Ayotte said in a statement. “I opposed this project as it was originally configured, and I’ve made clear that burying transmission lines is an option that should receive strong consideration.”

Sen. Jeanie Forrester, R-Meredith, has raised objections to the project, said, “Suggesting a mere eight miles of the total 187-mile route to be buried is not acceptable.”

Jack Savage, spokesman of the forest society, made a similar request.

“I think we see it as good news that the folks at Northern Pass have at long last discovered the shovel,” Savage said. “They’ve repeatedly said that they couldn’t or wouldn’t bury any part of the line. Today’s announcement is really a change in direction.”