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NH Senate to take up eminent domain bill

By Garrett Brnger
Associated Press / January 14, 2012
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CONCORD, N.H.—The New Hampshire Senate will consider a bill this week on whether to block a private company from taking private land for use on a project carrying hydroelectric power from Canada to southern New England.

The House-passed bill stems from opponents' fear eminent domain would be used to take private land for the contentious Northern Pass project. The project proposes to build 180 miles of power lines through the center of New Hampshire, including 40 miles through the scenic North Country.

The Senate held the bill over the summer and fall because it felt the House version was flawed. The Senate Judiciary Committee is endorsing an amended version when the Senate votes on Wednesday.

Many in the Senate, including state Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, and state Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, support different versions of the bill. Bradley supports an amendment to further protect landowners from other eminent domain encroachments. Bragdon doesn't believe eminent domain should be allowed to take private property.

Bradley believes the current eminent domain laws already address projects like Northern Pass by forbidding those types of land takings. His concern focuses on public utilities and their use of eminent domain. These "quasi-public" companies are the target of his amendment.

Some of Bradley's proposed changes include better notification, requiring companies to offer double a property's worth before seeking to take property through eminent domain, and a $25,000 fine for any threat of eminent domain before the Public Utilities Commission has authorized its use.

Bragdon and state Sen. Jeanie Forrester, R-Meredith, plan to introduce an amendment that would bring the bill closer to the House version, which would require Northern Pass to prove the energy was needed. Instead of creating additional procedures, Bragdon and Forrester would expressly block private developments, specifically "participant-funded projects" like Northern Pass.

Forrester said their amendment would resolve the basic problem raised by Northern Pass -- private companies using eminent domain -- instead of focusing solely on the project.

"It could be Wal-Mart; it could be Irving (Oil Co.). Any private company that comes into the state and wants to build something that is not needed in the state should not be able to do it," Forrester said.

Northern Pass Transmission, LLC is composed of Northeast Utilities and NSTAR, two New England based utility companies. The project would build, own and operate the transmission lines while leasing them to Hydro-Quebec to transmit 1,200 megawatts of electricity into the New England Power pool.

Opponents say the power transmitted through the lines does not represent a vital interest to New Hampshire.

Northern Pass spokesman Martin Murray said the company has transmission rights for the majority of the proposed route: from the southernmost terminal to just north of Groveton. The company is trying to acquire through purchase or easements, he said.

"There is no intention on the part of the project to use eminent domain... It's not something we're dependent on," Murray said.

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