Saying "No" To Northern Pass - And Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars

Oct 27, 2011

The Northern Pass electric project is searching for a new, less controversial path through the North Country.

But a small group of landowners is determined to block the utility’s plan even though it means giving up hundreds of thousands of dollars.

NHPR’s Chris Jensen reports.

Sound of piano music.

At 65 years of age Lynne Placey gives piano lessons.

She lives with a cat and a gray-muzzled dog in a small house in Stewartstown.

And she hopes she’s blocking the path of a corporate giant.

“I just would feel like I was selling out.”

That corporate giant is the Northern Pass project.

It is a partnership between two companies.

One is Northeast Utilities, the parent company of Public Service of New Hampshire.

The other is NStar, a Massachusetts-based utility company.

Northern Pass wants to run a transmission linefrom the Canadian border 180 miles south carrying power from Hydro-Quebec.

The towers would be between 90 and 135 feet high. 

The first 40 miles of that will be a new cut through North-Country forests.

But North Country residents strongly opposed  the original route – which went to Groveton.

So in April Northern Pass said it would look for a new route.

Lynne Placey says a phone call convinced her that her land is part of that new route.

“He said I represent a party that would like to know if you would be interested in granting them an easement across your 114 acres up on Holden Hill. And, I said ‘Who is the party you represent?’ He said ‘Ultimately it is the Northern Pass.”

That land has been in the family for a long time. Placey says her late husband, Donald, took her there on one of their first dates.

She says she turned the realtor down without even asking about the money.

Later when a relative who owns adjacent land came to visit she got a good idea of how much money she might have gotten.

“He said ‘I have just signed a contract with Northern Pass for $500,000 for my 114 or 115 acres or whatever he had. And he said, you know, they would be willing to do the same for you. They would like to talk to you. They would like to make you an offer.”

Placey admits the money would make her life so much easier.

Her husband was sick for about a decade. That chewed up the couple’s savings. Now she gets by on Social Security and the piano lessons.

“That would be a comfortable nest egg. I wouldn’t have to wonder, you know, next year now where am I going to cut some wood so I can pay the taxes? I wouldn’t have to be so worried.”

From her house she can’t even see the land Northern Pass wanted to buy. It’s several miles away. But she hates the idea of the huge towers forever changing the land.

She says she and family members who own other parcels have all agreed they have to block Northern Pass.

"And one of the reasons I am so adamant about not selling it that it is just not about me. It is the whole North Country and this whole North Country doesn’t want to see those towers. We don’t want a foreign corporation coming in here.”

Sound of pickup truck rumbling along.

Rick Samson is driving his pickup along Cream Poke Road in Stewartstown.

He’s a strong opponent of Northern Pass.

So much so, that he checks county records to find recent land purchased by Northern Pass.

He thinks after crossing the Canadian border near Pittsburg Northern Pass will likely go southeast towards the Dixville Notch and then continue south.

“My opinion is that they have several different routes because they don’t have enough parcels for a direct route right now. So, they are buying land up so they can have as many options as they can.”

Northern Pass officials aren’t talking about their plans. They say the route is still being developed.

A few bouncy miles up the road Samson stops his pickup near the top of a ridge. There’s an old outhouse. Next to it is a sign saying “Stop Northern Pass.”

It is raining and the clouds are hunkered down onto the mountains. But the misty-gray view is still great.

Samson and I climb out of the truck and meet Bill Weir who owns the land.

“We can look right over from here pretty much into Rangely, Maine. You can look up in this direction and see Canada and look way over to the left is the top end of the state of Vermont comes up into this area.”.

Weir says Northern Pass wants to buy 18 of acres of it.

He points to the woods at the edge of a field and says if Northern Pass has its way the towers would stretch across his land just inside the tree line.

“I’ve always called this my million-dollar view. Well, if I got to look through a bunch of towers and power lines it is going to ruin my view.”

He says he just won’t sell.

“If I can possibly stop Northern Pass going across my property I will do it.”

One tactic being explored by the opponents – who often refer to themselves as “The Opposition” - is trying to buy land that the utility wants.

Again, Rick Samson:

“There’s two parcels in Clarksville and Pittsburg right now that are being negotiated for by both Northern Pass and the opposition.”

Before Northern Pass proceeds it needs the approval of state and federal officials.

But opponents of the project say they don’t have much faith in that process.

Bill Weir:

“I don’t think the state is doing a job right now. Governor Lynch, he said they are going to move the line to make the North Country people happy. Maybe they made a few happy they moved it, but they made a hell of a lot more unhappy again. The North Country people up here don’t want this line and everybody is unhappy about it.”

As Samson sees it stopping the Northern Pass may come down to a bunch of stubborn landowners who put their desire for an unchanged North Country above money.

Samson says he sympathizes with people who badly need money and feel they simply can’t turn down offers from Northern Pass.

But he is bitter about land sold by speculators and people he feels didn’t need the money.

The issue of whether to sell land is emerging as a source of friction within the North Country.

 “There are some business people in Colebrook and Stewartstown that have sold and as far as I am concerned I can no longer do business with them.”

Northern Pass has been running a series of ads trying to put a human face on the project.

“Hi, my name is Grace. I live in Franklin, New Hampshire. I have three boys that attend the schools here and I work at the recreation center here in town.”

The advertisement touts the economic benefits of the project.

“The Northern Pass is supposed to bring $25 million in revenues to the state of New Hampshire every year. We need it. The kids need it.”

But opponents of Northern Pass note that none of the people in those ads is from the North Country.

Several are from Franklin which stands to benefit from a tax boost.

The opponents say the faces people should also see belong to people like Placey and Weir.

They are the people who feel the Northern Pass will so badly damage the North Country that they’re willing to give up hundreds of thousands of dollars.

For NHPR News, this is Chris Jensen.