PLYMOUTH — The public hearing held here Tuesday night was yet another reminder that Northern Pass power line project is very unpopular in the northern half of the state.
The forum, hosted by the federal Department of Energy to gather public comment to the recently modified plans for the $1.6 billion project, was dominated by speakers who told federal officials that Northern Pass, rather than being an economic boon to the state as supporters claim, would hurt the tourism industry, lower property values and produce little if any discernible benefit to state residents and businesses.
The most frequently voiced objection was that the 186 mile 1,200 megawatt line would permanent mar the scenic beauty in many parts of the state, including the North Country, an area heavily dependent on tourism and outdoor recreation for its livelihood.
More than 600 people showed up for the three-hour hearing held at Hanaway Theater at Plymouth State University. But the audience dwindled to less than half that number after about an hour and a half.
"Northern Pass is proposing for 180 miles to string lines on steel towers that exceed the height of existing trees," said Eli Gray of New Hampton. He said the line would "mar the scenic beauty up and down the state. This fact is indisputable."
Others voiced similar concerns, calling Northern Pass a monstrosity or a symbol of corporate insensitivity and greed.
State Sen. Jeb Bradley (R-Wolfeboro) faulted Public Service of New Hampshire and Hydro Quebec — Northern Pass's two major corporate partners — for being unsympathetic with critics' anxieties.
"They are failing to listen to valid concerns of property owners, whose property values and lives will be adversely affected," Bradley said. Calling for burial of Northern Pass along its entire length, Bradley said, "Towers above treetops don't make good neighbors," an allusion to Robert Frost's poem about good fences making good neighbors.
State Sen. Jeannie Forrester (R-Meredith), an early Northern Pass critic whose district includes much of Grafton County, said Northern Pass represents "a clear and present danger to New Hampshire's economic health." She urged Department of Energy officials to include two or more alternatives for construction of Northern Pass, including one that would call for burying the lines underground.
Brian Mills, senior planning advisor for the Energy Department's Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, said his agency's only role in the Northern Pass decision is whether to grant a permit to allow the line to cross the border from Canada into the U.S. near Pittsburg. He said that Northern Pass will also need to receive separate permits from the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Forest Service, as well as various state and local authorities. Mills said all the necessary permits would need to be approved before any phase of the project could begin.
Of the Northern Pass supporters who spoke, many were from Franklin where a large converter station would be built to change the 1,200 megawatts of power from DC to AC current. The city stands to gain about $4.2 million annually in property taxes, if the Northern Pass project goes through.
Franklin Mayor Ken Merrifield noted that although the power Northern Pass would bring in from Quebec is not needed to meet electrical demand in New Hampshire, any shortage of electrical power in Southern New England hits New Hampshire ratepayers in the pocketbook because New Hampshire utilities end up having to more for electricity during times of peak demand.
Franklin City Councilor Douglas Boyd likened Northern Pass opponents to the Clamshell Alliance which in the 1970s tried unsuccessfully to block construction of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant. "Thank God they weren't successful," Boyd said, adding: "There will come a day when the opponents (of Northern Pass) will say, 'Boy, did we make a big mistake.'"
But Northern Pass critics, many wearing bright orange "Stop Northern Pass" T-shirts, said the project's supporters overstate its purported benefits are that they also fail to take into consideration the long-term economic impact, especially in the area of diminished property values. Several opponents who spoke mentioned an guest column by Gov. Maggie Hassan published last week in the Boston Globe which said Northern Pass carries "all costs and few, if any, savings" for the people of New Hampshire."
Thomas Mullen, developer of Owl's Nest Resort and Golf Club said Northern Pass has had a chilling effect on real estate sales in and around the resort through which 14,000 feet of the Northern Pass line would run. He said that a lot that sold for $145,000 in 2010 recently sold for $20,000 and a house and lot which had been appraised for $495,000 sold for $225,000.
"Owl's Nest is for all practical purposes out of business until something (about Northern Pass) changes," Mullen said.
John Bruce of Holderness whose property abuts the Northern Pass route said that when prospective buyers hear about the power line they immediately lose interest.
"Would you want to purchase a house with a 135-foot tower in the front or back yard?" he asked.
Critics played down the impact of the jobs Northern Pass would have on local communities, saying that most of the jobs would be only temporary or that because they required certain highly specialized skills the jobs would go mostly to out-of-staters.
But Fran Wendelboe of New Hampton, a former state representative, said, "In this economy 1,200 jobs is nothing to sneeze at."
"I've never seen a project so controversial," said Bradley.