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What Is Northern Pass? Northern Pass is a proposal to run 192 miles of new power lines from Canada, through northern New Hampshire, south to Concord, and then eastward to Deerfield. The project is a collaboration between Eversource (previously known as Public Service of New Hampshire) and Hydro-Quebec, which is owned by the provincial government of Quebec. The utilities say the $1.6 billion Northern Pass project would transport 1,090 megawatts of electricity from Quebec – which derives more than 90 percent of its power from hydroelectric dams – to the New England power grid.The ControversyNorthern Pass has proved an incredibly controversial issue in New Hampshire, especially in the North CountryThe project has generated considerable controversy from the beginning. Despite its statewide impacts, many of the projects most dedicated opponents come from the sparsely-populated and heavily forested North Country.Eversource says the new lines would bring jobs and tax revenue to this struggling part of the state. But opponents of the project say it would mean only temporary jobs for residents when it's under construction. They also say it will deface New Hampshire's forestland, hurting tourism and lowering property values. Depending on the location, developers say the project's towers will range from 85 to 135 feet tall.Polls have consistently found the public remains sharply divided on this issue.Some critics have pushed for the entire project to be buried. Politicians ranging from Sen. Maggie Hassan to former Sen. Kelly Ayotte to 2012 GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich have floated this move as having the potential to soften opposition. Eversource maintains this would be too expensive, and would effectively make the project impossible to pursue. The Route: Real Estate Chess Plays Out In The North Country Northern Pass and its opponents have been fighting over control of land along potential routesNorthern Pass has considered a number of routes for the project, but has publicly announced three. The first, unveiled in 2011, faced major backlash from North Country residents and environmental groups. Over the next couple of years, the project and its primary opponent the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests played a prolonged chess match over parcels of North Country land. Northern Pass ultimately spent more than $40 million purchasing acres of undeveloped land in the North Country. Meanwhile, the Forest Society undertook an aggressive fundraising campaign and sought a slew of conservation easements to block potential routes.This maneuvering narrowed the options for Northern Pass. One lingering possibility was exercising eminent domain. Northern Pass publicly stated it was not interested in pursuing eminent domain. But in 2012, in response to strong statewide opposition, the Legislature closed the option altogether, outlawing the practice except in cases where a new transmission line was needed to maintain the reliability of the electric system.By the spring of 2013, Northern Pass opponents believed the project was essentially "cornered" into trying to route the power line through a large conservation easement, called the Connecticut Lakes Headwaters. The governor at that time, Democrat Maggie Hassan, said she opposed such a move on the part of Northern Pass.Second Time Around: Northern Pass Announces Alternative RouteIn June of 2013, Northern Pass unveiled its second proposed route. Abandoning its previous strategy (and $40 million in land purchases) altogether, the project proposed building along existing state and local North Country roadways in Clarksville and Stewartstown. In a nod to project opponents, Northern Pass also said it will bury 7.5 miles of line in Stewartstown, Clarksville, and under the Connecticut River. That raised the price tag on the project from $1.2 billion as initially proposed to about $1.4 billion. While opponents said this move was progress, many – including the Forest Society – maintained that Northern Pass should be able to bury all 180 miles of power lines.Final Route: Burial through the White Mountains0000017a-15d9-d736-a57f-17ff8a620000 After years of continued opposition, Northern Pass made its final concession to critics. It downsized the powerline from an initial proposal of 1,200 megawatts to 1,090 to take advantage of a new technology, known as HVDC lite. This move made it more economical to bury portions of the line, and Eversource said it was now willing to bury 52 additional miles of the project. The new route would be alongside state roadways as the project passed through the White Mountain National Forest.While the governor called the change “an important improvement,” she also said “further improvements” to the project should be made. The partial burial did not placate the project’s fiercest opponents, but some speculated that it would help the project clear one significant hurdle: whether it would get approval to use public lands from the top official at the White Mountain National Forest. The move pushed the estimated price tag up again, to $1.6 billion, now for a project that would deliver less power.With its new route in hand, project officials filed to build the project in October of 2015.Before the Site Evaluation CommitteeThe application to state officials was likely the longest and most complicated in the state’s history, and 161 individuals, interest groups, and municipalities asked to be allowed to participate in the process to evaluate the merits of the project.Given the size and complexity of the project, many of the interveners pushed for a longer review than the standard one year that state law dictates. In May of 2016, those groups got their wish, and the decision was pushed back 9 months. The final deadline was set for September of 2017. However, once the proceeding got under way, it was clear that even this delay would not allow time to hear from all of the witnesses called by the various interveners. Early in September of 2017 it was delayed again, with a final decision set for February 2018.DeniedOn February 1st, 2018, the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee voted unanimously to deny the permit for Northern Pass, a decision that triggered an appeals process that was taken up by the New Hampshire Supreme Court in late 2018.In May of 2019, the court heard orgal arguments on the appeal.On July 19, 2019, the court issued its ruling. In a unanimous decision, the SEC's rejection of the project was upheld, likely marking the end of Northern Pass as it was proposed.

Forest Society Sues to Block Northern Pass

Chris Jensen

The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, one of the state's oldest conservation groups, has asked the Coos County Superior Court to block the Northern Pass project, a power line which would connect New England to Canadian hydropower.

The petition claims the Forest Society owns the land under Route 3 in Clarksville where the project plans to bury the proposed line. The dispute comes down to a short section of road right where the proposed power line crosses the Connecticut River between the towns of Pittsburg and Clarksville. On either side of route 3 is a plot of land called the Washburn Family Forest, which the Forest Society owns.

“In 1931 the selectmen of Pittsburgh, Clarksville and Stewartstown jointly laid out a road which today is route 3,” explains Forest Society Vice President Will Abbot, “They paid damages to the then owner of our Washburn family forest for the taking of the right of way over that land. They did not acquire the land underlying that road, only the road itself.”

“The applicant cannot show it has the property rights it would need to build the proposed project,” says the society’s President, Jane Difley.

This is not an unexpected move. The Forest Society has been sayingfor two years that it would challenge the project’s right to bury the line under route 3.

Northern Pass spokesman Martin Murray says the utility has the right to use the road to move electricity, just like truckers and other private businesses use roads for private gain. “Certainly it is the right and a proper use of a public roadway to use it to convey a public good, a public commodity if you will,” he says.

In another motion submitted to the state board which reviews energy projects, the Site Evaluation Committee, the Forest Society asked regulators to rule the Northern Pass application as “incomplete”. This comes less than a week after the Department of Environmental Services said it considered the Northern Pass' application incomplete on similar grounds, and the SEC sent a letter to the Northern Pass seeking additional justification for its right to build on state roads.

However, last week the department of Transportation signaled it would accept the project's proposal of burial along roadways, writing a letter to the SEC saying it viewed the Northern Pass application as complete.

Credit Courtesy: Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests
Courtesy: Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests
This aerial photo shows the section of Route 3 in question.

The dispute may to boil down to the question of whether Northern Pass has the same right to use roads that its parent company – Eversource Energy – has. 

The Forest Society argues that because The Northern Pass will operate as a so-called “merchant facility” and sell energy into a competitive regional energy market, it doesn’t qualify as a public utility.

“It’s not something that there’s been any determination of need to go forward, it’s something simply that they want to do,” explains the Forest Society’s Vice President of communications, Jack Savage, “and from our standpoint they need our permission to have access to our land.”

However, Mark Hodgdon, an attorney for the Northern Pass specializing in highway law, says this question is “utterly irrelevant.”

“The question is: is it a proper highway use?” says Hodgdon, explaining this goes to a body of case-law called viatic use. “What allows them to be in the highway and a proper use of the highway is that they’re conveying something from point A to point B. It’s not that they’re a public utility, that’s not the magic test.”

Regardless of how the legal question is decided “what we’re looking at is the potential for a delay,” says Murray.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.
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