New Hampton delivers clear message regarding Northern Pass: bury every inch of line

LACONIA — "Northern Pass wants to take shovel in hand. And dig a trench through part of our land," rhymed Philip Preston, a property owner in New Hampton, the lone town in Belknap County in the path of the project. "There's only one way to settle us down," he closed, "and that's to keep digging through every town."

Preston spoke to more than 100 people gathered at the conference center at the Lake Opechee Inn & Spa last night for the last of five public information sessions on the Northern Pass project, one in each of the five counties — Coos, Grafton, Merrimack, Rockingham and Belknap — where the project would be located. The sessions, are a required component of the permitting process conducted by the New Hampshire Site Committee (SEC), which will begin this fall.

Northern Pass, a joint undertaking between Eversource Energy and Hydro-Quebec,  consists of a transmission line stretching some 192 miles and passing through 31 municipalities, from the border with Canada to the town of Deerfield, and carrying 1,000 megawatts of power generated by hydro-electric plants owned and operated by Hydro-Quebec.  The transmission line would carry direct current (DC) some 153 miles from Clarksville to Franklin where a converter plant would convert the electricity to alternating current (AC), which a line of 34 miles would carry to the New England grid at Deerfield.

Eversource last month announced that another 52 miles of transmission line through the western reach of the White Mountain National Forest between Bethlehem and Bridgewater will be buried along state highways. With a stretch of eight miles between Clarksville and Stewartstown also underground, the company proposes to bury 60 miles of the 192-mile project. Some 400 of the more than 1,500 towers, between 90-feet and 135-feet high, would be eliminated.

The overwhelming majority of those present Thursday night echoed the thrust of Preston's verse that all 192 miles of the transmission line passing through 31 towns should be buried underground in order not to degrade scenic landscapes, impair natural environments and diminish property values.

The project includes 7.3 miles overhead transmission line In New Hampton, 3.5 miles criss-crossing I-93 in the north and 3.8 miles skirting the Pemigewasset River in the south. The towers carrying the line would range between 70 feet and 125 feet high with most 80 feet high.

Gretchen Draper, whose home is on the river, said that she has a "personal vendetta" because "I will be looking at a 95-foot steel tower out my front window." ,

Neal Irvine, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, spoke for the town, reading from a prepared statement. He dismissed promises of increased tax revenues and lower energy costs as "an attempt to put lipstick on a pig." He noted that while Northern Pass claims the town will realize more revenue from property taxes, past experience suggests that when utilities receive their tax bill they file for an abatement and take the town to court.

The town, as a steward of the state's natural resources, Irvine said, has a responsibility to protect the environmentally sensitive corridor along the Pemigewasset River, which it has done since 1987 by means of an overlay district. Northern Pass proposes to place a tower within the designated scenic easement for the river, ignoring significant archaelogical sites of historic and cultural significance.

New Hampton, Irvine described as a gateway to the Lakes Region and White Mountains, first glimpsed traveling north on I-93 at mile marker 73 where Northern Pass would erect three 100-foot tall towers. Likewise, he said that towers would obscure the vista at mile marker 71, where the line again crosses the highway.

Irvine referred to the draft Environmental Impact Statement prepared by the United Department of Energy, which after reviewing 11 alternatives, found that burying the transmission lines would impose the least environmental impacts, yield the most tax revenue and generate the most jobs while sparing scenic views and property values.

Preston put it this way: "Costs of burial they claim are too high. But they'll leave us with land that few will buy. It's the landowners who will bear the cost, while watching a sense of place being lost.



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Contract for town administrator draws argument, then approval, in Gilmanton

GILMANTON — Following public discussion and contentious debate, the divided Board of Selectmen this week voted two-to-one to grant Town Administrator Paul Branscombe a four-year contract starting at a salary of $55,000 in 2016 and including three annual increases of $5,000 through 2019.

Don Guarino, who chairs the board, was the lone dissenter while Michael Jean and Rachel Hatch both voted in favor of extending Branscombe a multi-year contract.

Before the selectmen turned to the issue, which they tabled two weeks ago, Ralph Lavin presented them with a petition urging them to defer any decision until after the elections in March, at which the composition of the selectboard could change. Lavin questioned whether Branscombe could be sufficiently evaluated to warrant a multi-year contract after only six weeks on the job.

However, most agreed with Terry Donovan who said that with Branscombe's arrival "for the first time in years I believe we have really turned a corner to professional town government in Gilmanton."

Mark Sisti, the town moderator, described the petition as "a mystery" and doubted those who signed it understood the substance of the issue it purported to address. He said that Branscombe "has turned the ship around" and had an "enormous" impact in the community.

"The last few weeks," said Fire Chief Paul Hempel, "have been wonderful. It's not baloney. It's a fact." He noted that Branscombe was "building a team and we're moving forward with efficiency."

"It's about time Gilmanton came out of the stone age," declared one man who urged the selectboard "don't go back, go forward" then, pointing to the former town administrator Arthur Capello, said "we have a choice."

"Give the professional team some breathing room without the politics," implored another. "My fear is that we just might lose this gentleman."

"Put him in," a woman cried, prompting a round of applause. "The ones who want to wait for the election want to turn back the clock."

Reminding the selectmen of the petition, Lavin again asked them not to enter a multi-year contract until after the election. Rachel Hatch, who was appointed to the board to complete the term of Steve McCormack, which expires in March, took his remarks as directed at her. Rising from her seat, she said "I'm not going just sit here and keep a seat warm. I'm going to take action when it needs to be taken."

Branscombe explained that he requested a multi-year contract because when he was hired the contract he was offered had not been reviewed by the town's legal counsel and there were insufficient funds in the budget to pay his salry for the remainder of the year. He said that despite the responsibilities of the town administrator, in 2019, the fourth year of the requested contract, he would earn $70,000, less than a department head earns in 2015.

"You're totally out of line," Guarino countered, insisting that funds were available to fund Branscombe's salary. Branscombe replied that because the funds were not appropriated in the line for the town administrator's salary he considered the contract he was offered "null and void" and said "that is why I asked for a multi-year contract."

Guarino proposed the selectboard enter a non-pubic session on the grounds that further discussion could impugn someone's reputation. "That's me," Branscombe remarked, insisting the discussion continue in public.

Turning to Branscombe, Guarino recalled that at a prior meeting Branscombe disclosed a series of financial miscues that occurred before his arrival then charged "you do whatever it takes to give yourself a gold star and you don't care who you step on." Guarino also took exceptions to remarks Branscombe made to the press, which he called "derogatory."

"Can we get to the agenda,?" Hatch asked while Jean said "there were errors. Everybody made them. We're moving forward."

Guarino reminded his colleagues that the town has never entered a multi-year contract with its administrator and warned against making a long-term commitment without the Budget Committee.

Raising her voice, Hatch said that "maybe that's why we're in so much trouble in this town." When Guarino pleaded "don't yell" she snapped "I do need to yell. You are seriously wrong on this." She went on to say that she had discussed the issue with the chairman of the Budget Committee, Brian Forst, who told her "go for it."

Jean moved the question. The vote was taken. Someone shouted "good job" and people applauded.

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Gilford needs to be replace old stone culvert under Potter Hill Rd.

GILFORD — Selectmen agreed last night by consensus to replace a failing culvert under Potter Hill Road before it collapses entirely.

Public Works Director Peter Nourse said that during a rain storm on August 24, sink holes developed around the culvert area. Town employees placed cones over the sinkholes and Nourse had the road posted to a 3-ton maximum.

Nourse said further examination showed that the culvert is constructed of very large stones and nearly all of the chinking that was between the stones has eroded. He said the culvert allows water from an unnamed stream from Mount Rowe to pass to Gunstock Brook.

He said his plans are to use about $100,000 from a balance in the Highway Department paving line to install a precast concrete culvert with a closed bottom that will have similar water capacity.

Selectmen discussed two options for paying for the repair they all agree is necessary. The first was re-purposing the money from the paving surplus or taking funds from the capital reserve fund set aside for bridges.

Nourse said the state department of transportation defines a bridge as a span of 10-feet by 10-feet or greater and that the Potter Hill Road culvert is 4-feet by 4-feet and it doesn't qualify as a bridge.

He noted that the $400,000 in the bridge capital reserve fund will be needed for a red-listed bridge repair on Old Lake Shore Road that will be getting some state matching funds in a few years.

Nourse said he is working with the state Department of Environmental Resources for a plan that will be as minimally invasive as possible. He added that the Division of Historical Resources said there was nothing of historical value in the area around the culvert.

After discussion the options, selectmen decided to take the money from the paving fund rather than the bridge capital account.

In other business, selectmen voted to take a $41,360 fee for design engineering from the construction budget of the new police station and pay for it from the administrative contracted services line. Town Administrator Scott Dunn said engineering services were never supposed to come from the construction budget.

Selectmen also voted to accept a change order of $5,782 to pay for wiring in the police station fire alarm and fire hydrant systems. Dunn noted that when the engineers designed the plan, those rules were not mandated by the state but now they are.

With the most recent changes and the removal of the design engineering fees, Dunn said there is $451 left unencumbered in the construction budget.

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