Northern Pass continues to buy up land in Coos County as the House bill to prevent private utilities from using eminent domain to acquire private property goes back to the New Hampshire Senate.
Passed by a 23-1 Senate vote on Tuesday was House Bill 648, which seeks to prohibit private utilities such as Northern Pass from employing eminent domain to acquire private land.
In Coos County, Northern Pass is seeking land for its proposed $1.1 billion, 1,200-megawatt, 180-mile hydroelectric transmission line that would carry the Canadian-generated power through New Hampshire to southern New England.
In March 2011, the House passed the bill 317-51. The bill’s supporters say it will give more protection to property owners.
Voting in favor was state Sen. John Gallus, R-Berlin, who said, “I suspect the bill is no better than Amendment 12-a that we put in the [state] constitution a few years ago. It says the same thing – if you are a private entity, you can’t use eminent domain, period.”
Passed by the state Legislature in 2006, Amendment 12-a states eminent domain cannot be used if the taking of the private property is for private development.
When the senate passed the House bill Tuesday, it inadvertently left out the language of one of the bill’s several amendments, said Gallus. “We have to reconsider the bill [this] week and make the appropriate changes,” he said.
The bill passed with the senate’s Bradgon-Forrester amendment.
“We went over the language with the [New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission] and attorneys to make sure there are no loopholes when it comes to eminent domain,” state Sen. Jeanie Forrester, R-Meredith, said Friday.
The bill does not cede authority to federal agencies as some claim, she said. Instead, it merely brings RSA 371:1, the state statute on eminent domain, in line with the state constitution, said Forrester.
On Thursday, Colin Manning, press secretary for Gov. John Lynch, said Lynch will review the changes made to the bill and study what it would do.
The Northern Pass transmission line is being proposed by Hydro-Quebec, Nstar and Northeast Utilities, parent company of Public Service of New Hampshire (PSNH).
Forrester said the bill is not solely about Northern Pass but about eminent domain, and if Northern Pass didn’t bring up the issue of using eminent domain as a last resort, it would likely not be an issue in the Legislature.
On Thursday, PSNH spokesman Mike Skelton said, “The Northern Pass was never predicated on eminent domain and it was never in our plans to use eminent domain.”
But testimony from Northern Pass Transmission LLC President James Muntz, found in Northern Pass’s 703-page filing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, says otherwise.
“The expansion of the existing right-of-way, and the acquisition of approximately 50 miles of new right-of-way, may, as a last resort, trigger the need to exercise the power of eminent domain to achieve that expansion and acquisition,” Muntz said to FERC in December 2010.
The problem is not Northern Pass buying properties on the free market, said Will Abbott, vice-president for policy and land management with the Society For the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.
Rather, Abbott said, it’s Northern Pass either explicitly or implicitly saying to property owners it will use eminent domain to buy their land at market value if they don’t accept the premium above-market price Northern Pass makes in its initial offer.
“The issue is landowners in New Hampshire have constitutional property rights that are being violated by PSNH and that needs to stop,” Abbott said.
Skelton said, “Our goal since last spring was to work with willing landowners and find a route and we’ve had success with that over the last few months.”
Some landowners have been selling either land or a right-of-way, said Skelton.
And Coos County property records show there is no shortage of sellers.
As Northern Pass tries to piece together some 40 miles of new right-of-way that is needed to connect to PSNH’s existing right-of-way around Groveton, county property records show land purchases are still being made through a Northern Pass subsidiary called Renewable Properties Inc.
Since May, Renewable Properties Inc. as well as a second Northern Pass subsidiary called Properties Inc. have purchased more than $6 million of property in Coos County, according to property records. Some sellers, too, are making three or more times what they originally paid for the land.
One of the most recent sales occurred Dec. 13, when a 21.5-acre parcel in Stewartstown was sold by Jerry Biehl, of Rapid City, Michigan, and Jack Stilkey Jr., of Epping, for $99,600.
Also on Dec. 13, according to property records, Rosaire Marquis, of Colebrook, sold a 109-acre parcel along Lost Nation Road for $125,000.
On Dec. 15, Frerestone LLC, based in Lancaster, sold a parcel in Clarksville for $580,000. Frerestone’s agent, according to New Hampshire Secretary of State business records, is listed as Kenneth R. Tetrault, of Lancaster, and the business was incorporated in March 2010 to buy, manage, lease, maintain or improve real estate.
On Dec. 27, Donald McKinnon Jr. and Lorraine McKinnon, of Clarksville, sold a total of 135 acres in Clarksville for $351,733, according to property records.
On Dec. 29, records show Landon L. Placey and Lisette A. Riendeau, of West Stewartstown, sold 60 acres in Stewartstown for $675,000.
Also on Dec. 29, Brian W. Placey, of Stewartstown, sold 100 acres in Stewartstown for $530,000, records show.
And on Jan. 10, George F. McKinnon and Sandra L. McKinnon, of Center Conway, sold a parcel to Renewable Properties for $250,000.
The largest sale to date appears to have taken place on Nov. 18, when Bruce Washburn, Malcolm Washburn and Dallas Chase sold 62 acres of parcels in Clarksville for $1.4 million, according to property records.
In addition to meeting state and local requirements, the Northern Pass project must obtain a Presidential Permit from the U.S. Department of Energy as well as a special use permit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture because a portion of the line would pass through the White Mountain National Forest.
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