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North Country towns take on Northern Pass

To give them a legal tool and strengthen their position if it would ever go to court, several North Country towns, including Sugar Hill, are trying to adopt ordinances to keep Northern Pass out.

“It’s a way to fight back and take the town’s rights back,” Janet Anderson, a Sugar Hill Northern Pass Advisory Committee member said Tuesday. “At the moment, we have no say over permits and what we are allowed to do.”

Other towns proposing similar ordinances on their warrants are Easton, Lancaster, Plymouth, Northfield and Holderness. And Franconia is expected to give it a run this year, said Gail Darrell, community organizer with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which provides towns with the basic template for the ordinance.

“It’s not just a legal tool,” said Darrell. “It’s an organizing strategy.”

Northern Pass is the $1.1 billion, 1,200-megawatt hydroelectric transmission line proposed by Hydro-Quebec, Nstar and Northeast Utilities, parent company of Public Service of New Hampshire.

And eminent domain, contrary to what some Northern Pass officials are now saying, remains a tool in its arsenal.

Current plans call for 40 miles of new transmission line right of way in Coos County that would connect to PSNH’s existing right of way in the vicinity of Groveton. The project could also require a widening of the existing right-of-way in Sugar Hill and other towns.

Last week, the New Hampshire Senate passed House Bill 648, which seeks to prevent private utilities such as Northern Pass from using eminent domain for private development.

Eminent domain, if Northern Pass would be allowed to use it, would force landowners to sell their land for market value if the for-profit transmission line is deemed in the public interest.

PSNH spokesmen Martin Murray and Mike Skelton have recently said Northern Pass was never predicated on the use of eminent domain, but testimony to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission by Northern Pass Transmission President James Muntz says otherwise.

In December 2010, Muntz told FERC, “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 …”

Sugar Hill’s four-page proposal that will go before voters at town meeting is called “Sugar Hill’s right to a sustainable energy future, right to scenic preservation and community self-government ordinance.”

The committee has an informational packet that will be distributed to Sugar Hill residents so they know prior to voting what the ordinance is about and what it does, Anderson said.

The proposed ordinance “removes legal powers and authority from corporations within the town that are in violation of this ordinance or are seeking to engage in activities that are prohibited by this ordinance, in recognition that those legal powers are illegitimate and unjust, in that they place the rights of a corporate minority over the rights and political authority of a majority of Sugar Hill residents …”

“We may or may not get sued over it,” said Anderson. “If we do go to a court of law, they will say they have more rights as a corporation than we do as townspeople. We are circumventing that and saying we have as many rights as they do.”

Anderson said, “We want a seat at the table as to what goes on in our community, especially with a project like this. Tourism is all we have and they are coming to destroy that for a handful of people in a corporation who want to make money.”

Northern Pass could have been done in other ways, she said, such as taking it underground along a highway or a different right of way.

“If they go down the highway, the state gets the revenue,” she said. “PSNH wants them to go down their right of way so they get the revenue.”

Sugar Hill’s proposal would not prohibit smaller, sustainable and local renewable energy projects within the town, Anderson said.

Even with HB.648 passing, Darrell said there is a legal structure in place that allows public utilities to move through communities even if those communities don’t want them. Corporations, also influence the writing of regulations, she said.

“It’s hard for citizens at the municipal level to break into that and have a voice,” Darrell said. “That’s why we started drafting these rights-based ordinances. This is all about local community self-government.”

“If enough towns pass these ordinances, they will have to take us on as a group,” Anderson said.