STEWARTSTOWN, N.H. – As Rod McAllaster tells it, he could have been very rich.
The dairy farmer says he was offered $4 million for his remote farm near the Quebec border by developers of a proposed transmission line that would carry hydropower from Canada to Southern New England.
“I said no. This power line will ruin 180 miles of New Hampshire landscape,’’ McAllaster said recently as he tended to his 80 cows against a backdrop of rolling hills.
Instead, McAllaster has pledged to never allow transmission lines on his property, in exchange for a smaller payment from a conservation group that is using unusual tactics in a bid to block in the Northern Pass project. While the power line’s intended route is a secret, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests has identified key parcels it thinks Northern Pass needs to link the proposed corridor together, and it is trying to acquire conservation easements on these properties.
With Northern Pass promising to announce a detailed route by the end of the month, opponents will soon find out if their efforts have worked. While land use specialists say the forest society and its partners cannot compete financially against the deep-pocketed project, they could cause enough headaches for the developers that they would have to alter plans to make the transmission lines more publicly palatable – perhaps by burying them or running them along highways.
Martin Murray, a Northern Pass spokesman, said that he had “no knowledge” of the offer to McAllaster but that developers are happy to work with any willing landowner. In October, the project bought 362-plus acres for more than $4 million, according to the Coos County Democrat.
The Northern Pass project is raising a host of economic and environmental issues perhaps comparable in New England only to the deeply controversial Cape Wind project that wants to place 130 turbines in Nantucket Sound.
First proposed in 2010, the project is a partnership of Public Service of New Hampshire, its parent company Northeast Utilities, NStar, and Hydro-Quebec. Some 140 miles of the proposed corridor is already an existing Public Service right of way, including a 10-mile swath through the White Mountain National Forest.
But there is no right of way for the northernmost 40 miles that Northern Pass needs, and building a 150-foot wide corridor there has met with deep hostility from residents and environmental groups, who say it would scar an unbroken vista of rolling hills, forests, and farms.
Scores of landowners have erected orange signs – some profane – along roads near the intended route, telling Northern Pass to go away. Thirty-two communities in New Hampshire have passed resolutions or ordinances against Northern Pass, according to a tally by a blogger.
Northern Pass officials say the project will bring 1,200 megawatts of needed clean, green energy from Canada and they have worked hard to lower tower heights along the route. Along the most northern 40 miles and through the White Mountains, officials say, structure heights will be about 85 feet tall. Murray says 1,200 jobs will be created yearly during the three-year construction phase, including 550 jobs in Northern New Hampshire. The company recently held three meetings that attracted 150 people interested in jobs, said Murray, and has the support of the state’s two largest chambers of commerce.
“Northern Pass is the ideal energy project; it’s renewable, it’s clean.” Murray said. Northern Pass says that the hydropower will lower energy prices by $200-$300 million a year in New England because it will displace more expensive forms of energy and noted that Massachusetts is relying on some of the electricity to meet goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Environmental groups and many North Country residents disagree on almost every point Northern Pass makes. They say it is not clear the project will save consumers money and that there is no guarantee the hydropower will displace dirtier forms of energy, such as coal. They dispute the calculations Northern Pass uses to contend that hydropower releases little or no carbon dioxide – the main contributor to manmade global warming – saying those conclusions do not take into account the drowning of vast forests in Canada, which then release enormous amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
“This is a project being pursued without community support that does not advance a clean energy future for the region,’’ said Christophe Courchesne, a staff attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation.
The Legislature has not taken a formal position on Northern Pass, but fearful that developers would try to use eminent domain to seize land for the corridor, it prohibited the taking of land for it by using eminent domain. (Northern Pass says it never intended to use this tactic.)
An earlier proposed route caused such an uproar that the developers put the project on hold to develop a more acceptble plan. But Northern Pass has rejected suggestions to bury the lines or place them along highways, with Murray saying these ideas would be too expensive and might be technically impossible.
Now, the race is on for land. Last month, Northern Pass officials confirmed a lease plan for 20 miles of right of way for an undisclosed sum. Local pubs and coffee shops are abuzz with gossip about millions offered to friends and neighbors.
Murray declined to say how much Northern Pass has spent acquiring land or rights of way, but local reporters and environmental groups who analyze real estate transactions estimate it has been more than $22 million.
The forest society, meanwhile, has raised about $1.1 million of the $2.5 million it needs to purchase McAllaster’s conservation easement and those on three other properties.
Last year, the society completed a longtime goal of conserving land on the Balsams Grand Resort Hotel property in Dixville Notch, in part because so many people donated after learning Northern Pass wanted to run the transmission line across it, forest society officials said.
Because Northern Pass has not publicized its latest route, the forest society and partners have scoured real estate records looking for sales or leases to the project.
The society mapped those transactions to find key parcels they believed the project would still need.
“We don’t have the money to buy big parcels, but we are trying to be strategic,’’ said Jack Savage, spokesman for the forest society. “We are trying to box them in.”
The group believes Northern Pass will have to detour around McAllaster’s land and an adjacent property to the west with a conservation easement, extending its route by 6 to 8 miles and forcing it to negotiate with dozens of property owners, because land to the east in conserved.
“I’m not so convinced it’s going to stop,’’ McAllaster, 60, said of Northern Pass. “This project is not even needed and they have this shove-it-down-your-throat attitude. But it’s not going on my land.”
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