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Northern Pass May Cross Public Land

Thursday, February 21, 2013
In a conference call with industry analysts yesterday, a Northern Pass official said two things that surprised those following news of the proposed hydro-power line from Canada.

Leon Olivier, chief operating officer for Northeast Utilities, told analysts the transmission lines might cross public rights of way. Olivier also said Northern Pass was not harmed by recent conservation easements blocking the route because project officials were never interested in those properties.

Both statements are at odds with previous news accounts of the project.

Last year, in an effort to tamp down fears they’d use eminent domain, Northern Pass officials said often that they’d use only land they’d bought from private landowners for their transmission lines.

As for the conserved lands, several of the people who sold easements to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests did so after turning down offers from Northern Pass.

One was Rod McAllaster of Stewartstown, who said representatives from Northern Pass offered him $4 million for his Stewartstown farm to get around blocks elsewhere in the route.

“They say I’m not important but I was very important,” McAllaster said yesterday. He said project officials also offered him land elsewhere in exchange for his property.

Olivier made the statements yesterday in a call with analysts about Northeast Utilities’s fourth-quarter earnings. Northeast Utilities has partnered with Hydro-Quebec and Public Service of New Hampshire in hopes of bringing hydropower through New Hampshire and into the New England energy grid.

But project officials have struggled to find enough contiguous pieces of land in the North Country to accommodate that part of the proposed route, largely because of opposition from locals and efforts by the forest society to block the project with conservation easements.

Olivier assured analysts yesterday that the long-delayed route would be announced in the “next several weeks.” Paul Patterson, an utility analyst with Glenrock Association in New York, asked Olivier whether Northern Pass had all of the required rights of way it needed for the route.

“We are very confident that we have a route that we can get sited,” Olivier replied. “As you’ve know, we’ve spent really the last two years acquiring rights of way from private property landowners. We have a number of options around intersections over public right of ways. So we are very confident we have a route.”

Olivier did not elaborate on what he meant by “public rights of way.” Mike Skelton, a spokesman for Northern Pass, declined to explain Olivier’s comment after the call. This is the second mention of Northern Pass using public land in three weeks.

Earlier this month, Executive Councilor Ray Burton of Bath and Sen. Jeannie Forrester of Meredith, expressed concern that Northern Pass officials were considering bypassing a conservation block in Clarksville by paying the state to run its transmission line across Route 3.

When Burton raised the possibility at an Executive Council meeting, transportation Commissioner Christopher Clement said he had not received anything official from Northern Pass but said he suspected such an inquiry would be coming.

It was unclear yesterday whether Clement’s agency has since been contacted by Northern Pass officials about public rights of way. A request for comment was not returned.

‘We’ve Blocked Their Route’

Jack Savage, spokesman for the forest society, listened to the conference call, which was public. Olivier’s reference to public rights of way caught his attention.

“It means that we’ve blocked their ability to identify a route by acquiring private lands,” he said. “It’s a clear acknowledgement that we’ve blocked their route.”

Olivier’s comments about the conserved lands was also prompted by a question from Patterson. He asked Olivier how analysts should interpret reports that opponents have been able to block the route with conservation easements.

“We read all of their press as well,” Olivier said. “The land in which they have for most part acquired is land in which we never sought to purchase to begin with. So we are not at all concerned with what their claims are.”

But Northern Pass representatives did approach more than only McAllaster about buying land that is now conserved by the forest society. And in one case, they protested the conservation easement.

In December 2011, the owners of property around the Balsams Grand Resort Hotel in Dixville Notch rejected a $2.2 million offer from Northern Pass to run transmission lines across 24 acres. The owners instead sold the forest society an easement on 5,800 acres for less, $850,000.

Northern Pass officials filed an objection with the state attorney general’s office, which had to approve the sale, and threatened to sue if the forest society’s offer was not rejected.

Diane and Donald Bilodeau of Gilford gave the forest society a conservation easement on their property in Clarksville for nothing after being approached twice by Northern Pass officials.

The property sits along Route 145, in a gap between two long stretches of parcels Northern Pass bought.

Lynne Placey of Stewartstown said she was contacted by Northern Pass about 76 acres she owns in town. When Placey said she wasn’t interested, her nephew, who sold to Northern Pass, dropped by to encourage her to sell too.

“He said he’d just sold for $500,000 and they’d do the same thing for me,” Placey said.

She instead sold the forest society a conservation easement, and its location created a block between Northern Pass land on either side of her.

Reached yesterday after the call, Patterson, the analyst, said it’s difficult for him to assess the status and progress of Northern Pass from his office in New York. He said he follows the local news coverage of the project, and the coverage prompted his questions.

“Clearly they are voicing confidence in their ability to get this project done,” he said. “Every project is different and this clearly is a very large project. It’s hard to comment without seeing the actual route and it’s hard to assess what the eventual outcome will be.”

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