Senate Passes Tighter Eminent Domain Rules

Jan 25, 2012

The New Hampshire Senate has voted to strengthen the rules for taking private property by eminent domain. But there are questions as to what the wording of the final Senate bill really means.

Mark McCulloch lives in North Stratford, way up North on the Vermont-New Hampshire Border.

His house is smack in the middle of the route for the hydro-electric transmission project, Northern Pass, the 180 mile transmission line that would bring electricity from Canada to New England.

For McCulloch and others like him, eminent domain is an emotional issue. "You do not have a clue as to what it feels like to be threatened with the possibility of getting your land taken away by eminent domain until you’re wearing the shoes," says McCulloch, "it’s unbelievably difficult to go through, if you really care about where you’re livin’ and what you’ve worked so hard for."

When the bill about eminent domain came up for a vote in the Senate, opponents to the transmission project packed the balcony of the senate chamber. It was clear from the start of the floor debate that stories like McCulloch’s had struck a chord with the senators on the floor.

Senator Jim Luther was just one of many who voiced their approval saying, "There is a lot of good protections here, we have heard many stories about problems that land-owners have had and I think this really addresses those issues."

But the bill has been contentious from the beginning. Since demand for energy is forecast to skyrocket in coming years, no-one in the legislature wants to make it impossible to create and link together new power projects. So legislators have wrangled over the wording of the bill.

In the end, the Senate voted to adopt complicated language that gives ISO New England, a regional regulator, some control over which projects qualify to use eminent domain. With this wording Northern Pass would not currently be eligible, but Public Service of New Hampshire spokesman Martin Murray says these guidelines are still in flux. Northern Pass might qualify to use eminent domain if the ISO rules change.

Murray says, "It is curious wording because it seems to punt the issue. We believe that this project the Northern pass, would meet the criteria that evolving federal and regional policy will outline sometime in the future."

Senator Jeb Bradley expressed similar reservations about the amendment.  "For those of you who are going to support it today I urge you to be prepared for what you ask for," he said

Despite these concerns, once amended the bill passed easily, with only one dissenting vote from Senator Jim Rausch, who thinks that the constitution already provides the protection property owners need.

Also despite concerns, property owners were soothed by the vote. North Stratford resident Mark McCulloch was satisfied after the vote, saying, "For once… things have worked in our favor. This was a good day, a very good day."

For PSNH’s Martin Murray, all of this is beside the point. According to him the project never planned to use eminent domain in the first place. "We’ve had some great success working with property owners to purchase land or easements on a voluntary basis for the land rights necessary to construct the project, so that’s what we’re doing," he says.

The house and senate still have to decide on common language, so for the legislature the debate about eminent domain is by no means finished.