NEW HAMPTON — With a series of key federal hearings on Northern Pass a week or less away, about 100 people opposed to the major power line project were told Monday evening that opponents need to turn up in large numbers to let federal officials know the extent of the opposition.
The message was delivered during a two-hour forum organized and hosted by state Sen. Jeannie Forrester (R-Meredith), one of a number of state elected officials who are opposed to the proposed 186-mile electric transmission line through New Hampshire carrying hydropower from Quebec to New England.
The first of the hearings being held by the federal Department of Energy is scheduled for Monday at the Grappone Conference Center in Concord from 6 to 9 p.m., with the second taking place on Tuesday at Silver Center for the Arts at Plymouth State University from 5 to 8 p.m. Other hearings will be held Wednesday and Thursday in Whitefield and Colebrook respectively.
"We would not have sustained this for as long as we have if it was not for all your efforts to tell the Northern Pass people that this is not the right thing for New Hampshire," Forrester told the audience of gathered at New Hampton School's McEvoy Theater.
Will Abbott, vice president of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, said he hoped that the Department of Energy would take a close look at alternative ways to construct the power line, and in particular to possible ways the line could be placed underground. One of the biggest complaints about the $1.6 billion Northern Pass project is that the installation of more than 1,500 towers — some as tall as 165 feet — would spoil the scenery in much of New Hampshire's mountainous North Country, where the economy is heavily dependent on tourism.
Northern Pass supporters say the 1,200 megawatts of Canadian hydroelectric power would reduce the need for electricity from fossil fuel sources that produce carbon emissions and would provide tax revenue from Northern Pass facilities to the communities the line passes through and would provide jobs to New Hampshire.
But opponents counter the power line's towers along the route would rise above the trees and would damage New Hampshire's environment, lower property values and make the state less attractive to tourists.
"If money is the arbiter, they will win," Abbott said of Northern Pass. "If people (are) the ultimate arbiter, then we will win. We have the power to stop this from happening," he said, adding that the Forest Society was prepared to fight the project in court if necessary.
Other panelists at the forum were Susan Arnold of the Appalachian Mountain Club and real estate broker Andy Smith.
Smith, a partner in the firm of Smith and Peabody, said since the Northern Pass project was unveiled almost three years it has had a "chilling effect" on real estate values in areas that are within sight of where the line would run. He acknowledged that was not possible to say precisely how much values have been hurt, explaining: "It's hard to quantify a non-sale." But he said that people looking to buy immediately lose interest in a particular property when they hear the Northern Pass route is nearby. "People come up here because they love what we have, and they do not want to see it spoiled."
Arnold, who is the AMC's conservation director, said that revisions to the Northern Pass route, including burying eight miles of the line in the far-north Connecticut Lakes Region, do not go far enough to address the concerns being raised by the project's critics.
Arnold faulted Northern Pass for not putting forth more extensive alternative plans for the project, including the burying the power lines altogether. She said the fact similar projects being planned in Maine and New York included buried lines was proof that such an alternative was feasible for Northern Pass. Arnold further noted that Northern Pass requires permission from the U.S. Forest Service to run lines through parts of the White Mountain National Forest, and so it will need to present alternatives, regardless of their cost, for the Forest Service to consider in deciding whether to give the utility permission to cross federal land.
The purpose of the DOE hearings is to analyze the potential environmental impacts associated with the project in light of the proposed changes Northern Pass announced back in June. The environmental impact statement is intended to provide the analysis to support a Forest Service decision on whether to issue a special use permit within the White Mountain National Forest.
Forrester said opposition to Northern Pass has drawn bipartisan support and that lawmakers from the southern part of the state are now beginning to raise concerns about its long-term impact. "We're beginning to see we can't just turn our back on this," she said.
Forrester expressed confidence that critics would prevail, and she said that even if the project clears all the federal hurdles, she intends to use the state's newly created power project site evaluation process to block it from being built.