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Friday, December 9, 2011

Decision bolsters Northern Pass

CONCORD – Opponents of the Northern Pass project sustained a heavy blow Thursday when a state Senate committee refused to block the use of eminent domain to bring it about.

Last spring, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved legislation (HB 648) to ban for-profit companies from taking land for eminent domain if the project is not needed to make the region’s power grid reliable.

Officials with Public Service of New Hampshire had opposed it fearing it would threaten future transmission projects such as Northern Pass to bring massive amounts of power from Hydro Quebec in Canada via overhead lines through New Hampshire.

Sen. Jim Luther, R-Hollis, said the House bill was too narrowly drawn and restrictive.

“It is targeting certain industries and I have concerns with that,” Luther said.

Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, said using eminent domain as a wedge to block development could hurt the economy.

“You are going to put a chilling dam down on these kind of partnerships,” Carson said. “We don’t know what is going to happen in the future.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday instead embraced, 4-0, an amendment that guts the House bill and merely gives added protections to property owners before their land is taken.

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, said the intent is to ensure that the land of property owners cannot be taken unless they turn down an offer to sell that is twice the fair market value.

Utilities would also have to reimburse property owners for a fair market appraisal of the land worth up to $1,500 under the approved amendment.

Northern Pass needs at least 40 miles of new right of way in the North Country. PSNH’s parent, Northeast Utilities, has taken back an initial plan for a path of the power lines over private land and is instead seeking willing sellers.

All told, the committee rejected eight other amendments, several of which would have blocked or blunted the use of eminent domain for such a project.

Sen. Andy Sanborn, R-Henniker, was one of those seeking to block eminent domain for Northern Pass.

“We should not be endorsing an unabridged right to take public property,” Sanborn said.

More than 100 opponents of Northern Pass packed the State House hearing room and spilled out into the hallway.

They walked out in protest as soon as it was clear the cause was lost.

Will Abbott said the Senate panel ignores the so-called 12-A constitutional amendment voters overwhelmingly approved in 2008 that opposes eminent domain for private development.

“They just threw 12-A under the bus,” Abbott said after the committee vote. “Private property owners are not protected.”

The full Senate will vote on this committee recommendation early next year.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com; also check out Kevin Landrigan (@KLandrigan) on Twitter.