Upset their own $2.2 million offer was rejected, Northern Pass officials are now trying to prevent owners of The Balsams Grand Resort Hotel from accepting a lower offer from the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.
The forest society’s offer of $850,000 protects 5,800 acres in Dixville Notch. Northern Pass’s $2.2 million offer was for a right of way across just 24 acres of that parcel.
Martin Murray, spokesman for Northern Pass, said project officials support the conservation effort. Their complaint is that the deal also blocks Northern Pass from building the transmission lines it needs for its proposed $1.2 billion hydropower line from Canada.
In a letter Tuesday, Northern Pass attorney Dana Bisbee asked the state attorney general’s office, which must approve the sale because the land is owned by a trust, to block the conservation deal. Bisbee suggested Northern Pass officials will sue if the state doesn’t agree.
In his letter, Bisbee said the trustees had a fiduciary duty to accept Northern Pass’s higher offer. Instead, Bisbee said, trustees abused their discretion and ignored their responsibilities by deciding to conserve the land and prohibit Northern Pass transmission lines for less money.
And this conservation sale won’t spare the landscape transmission lines in the future, Bisbee said. As part of the deal, the trust would retain the right to build its own transmission lines for a wind farm it is considering developing.
The attorney general’s office has not responded to Bisbee’s request. Anthony Blenkinsop, director of the office’s charitable trusts unit, said his office is reviewing the proposed sale to the forest society now.
Blenkinsop said financial gain can be a factor in ruling on a proposed sale but declined to say what weight his office will give it in this matter. “I don’t feel it’s appropriate to comment on that at this point,” he said.
The forest society has not filed a response to Bisbee’s letter. Jane Difley, president of the forest society, responded to a Monitor inquiry yesterday by email.
“We understand that corporations like Northern Pass are focused on the bottom line,” she wrote. “However, like many of our fellow landowners and our conservation partners, we also understand that money isn’t the only thing that matters in New Hampshire. Our forests, our land, scenic views and iconic places matter deeply to us. And they can’t always be bought.”
The Neil Tillotson Trust, which owns the 5,800 acres being sold, is obligated by its mission to conserve natural resources and further economic development in the North Country, according to trust paperwork.
The challenge before the attorney general’s office is deciding whether the proposed deal with the forest society accomplishes that.
Boston attorney John Cornish, who represents the trust, could not be reached yesterday. But he offered Blenkinsop his answer in an email Tuesday.
“(Bisbee) evidently does not understand that the trustees are not obligated to sell trust assets,” Cornish wrote. “They may fulfill their fiduciary duties, and the directions set forth in the trust, by donating those assets to charities selected by them, with or without any (payment) in return. Certainly, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests is a charity eligible to receive a distribution of the property from the trust.”
Bisbee’s letter makes clear that Northern Pass was surprised to be outbid by a lower bidder.
Northern Pass officials spent seven weeks negotiating with the trustees to buy two transmission rights of way. One involved 24 acres on the northern tip of the 5,800 acres the trust is now selling to the forest society. The other spanned 75 acres on a separate parcel. In exchange for the right of way, Northern Pass offered $2.2 million, $200,000 of which would go to Colebrook Hospital for health care initiatives.
Northern Pass officials wrapped up negotiations Dec. 6 with an understanding the trustees would accept their offer, according to Bisbee’s letter. In a phone call from a trustee the next morning, Northern Pass officials learned otherwise.
“The trustees have offered no further explanation for their action,” other than they thought it was in the best interest of the North Country, Bisbee wrote. “What has become clear, however, is that during the entire seven weeks of negotiations, the trustees felt pressured by phone calls and email communications to reject any sale of transmission rights across the Balsams property.”
Murray said yesterday the trust could have made more money by accepting both offers: Northern Pass’s $2.2 million for the transmission line right of way and the forest society’s $850,000 offer to conserve the land. But that wasn’t an option, according to Jack Savage, spokesman for the forest society.
He said the forest society has been talking with the Balsams owners for more than a decade about conserving the land around the hotel. When the society learned this fall that Northern Pass was trying to buy a piece of that land for its transmission lines, it offered to buy both the conservation easement and the right of way Northern Pass wanted.
But the society told the trust it wouldn’t buy one without the other, Savage said. The trust accepted the society’s offer.
The forest society is now trying to raise the $850,000 it needs by mid-January to sign off on the deal. Savage said donors from across the state donated $100,000 in the first week. Murray criticized the fundraising campaign yesterday as misleading.
In some of its requests for donations, the society has said it will keep all transmission lines off the Balsams land if it can raise enough money to buy the property. That’s not true, Murray said, given that the trust has reserved the right to build its own transmission lines for the wind farm it may develop.
The Northern Pass transmission lines would go in a northern corner of the 5,800-acre parcel, Murray said.
Few would see the lines there, he said. If the trustees build the wind farm, those transmission lines would be far more visible, he said. “They would create a much bigger impact than the Northern Pass lines would ever create,” he said.
Savage disputed that yesterday. “He’s comparing apples and oranges,” he said. The Northern Pass towers would be taller to accommodate high-voltage lines, and would run power from Canada to New England.
The wind farm, if it’s ever built, would supply local energy.
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