NH Senate wants more time on eminent domain bill

By Kathy McCormack
Associated Press / June 2, 2011

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CONCORD, N.H.—The New Hampshire Senate on Thursday decided to put off until next year action on a bill that would slow down a project to carry hydroelectric power from Canada to New England.

The final vote was 14-10 to send it back to the Senate Judiciary Committee for more study. Senators for and against the action agreed the bill was flawed, and although it was designed to change state procedures to take land by eminent domain, debate often focused on the controversial project that inspired the bill: the Northern Pass.

"It is perhaps the most contentious and complicated piece of legislation we heard in Judiciary this session," said Sen. Jim Luther, a Republican from Hollis. "We need additional time."

Under the bill, already passed in the House, public utilities could not ask the state for permission to take private land to build private, large-scale transmission lines unless they can show that construction of the transmission facility is needed for "system reliability" of the electric grid. That term, however, is not defined in the bill -- just one of its problems, senators noted.

The project would build power towers to carry transmission lines along a 180-mile route from northern to southern New Hampshire and provide electricity for the region. Most of the project would use existing rights of way. It would include 40 miles of new construction in the northern part of the state, where the opposition is based. Many residents there fear that they would lose their property to the project against their will. Others worry that the power lines would be an eyesore that could erode property values and hurt tourism. Some wonder if the project is needed at all.

The U.S. Department of Energy, which would have to grant a permit for the project, is accepting public comment on it through June 14.

The Senate gallery was filled with people opposed to the Northern Pass, wearing their trademark hunter orange. Some stood up and turned their backs when they heard testimony they didn't agree to.

Jim Dannis of Dalton, one of the opponents, said he wanted the bill to pass. He said he and others would be willing to work with the judiciary committee "to make the bill as clear and precise as possible."

Sen. Jeannie Forrester, a Meredith Republican, argued in favor of passing the bill and was prepared to offer an amendment that would place a one-year moratorium on any utility project that could involve eminent domain. "This legislation is about protecting private property rights," she said.

But other senators argued that the amendment wouldn't solve the problem and would set a bad example for businesses. Besides, they pointed out, Forrester's amendment and any others would be considered by the committee when it further studies the bill. The problem, they said, is that the state needs to re-examine its eminent domain laws, last updated in 2006.

Republican Sen. Jeb Bradley of Wolfeboro said the process by which a public utility requests a property by eminent domain is not at all easy or quick.

"It will be litigated to death. It will take forever. This project is not going to move forward regardless of what we do today at the Public Utilities Commission any time soon," he said. "What we should be thinking about is how we can create the win-win" that benefits property owners and businesses, he said.

Project opponents said the bill would stop the Northern Pass from using eminent domain because the energy from the project isn't needed in the state. North Pass supporters argue the bill would stop construction of other projects, and that eminent domain itself is rarely used.

Representatives of Public Service of New Hampshire have said the bill would have unintended consequences for the state, such as curtailing the state's ability to provide cost-effective electricity over the long term.

The project is proposed by PSNH's parent company, Northeast Utilities, as well as NSTAR and Hydro-Quebec. The companies say it would create about 1,200 jobs a year during its three-year construction phase. Construction groups are against the bill.

Hundreds of people from across the state attended hearings on the House-passed bill. Opponents argued it could stop many necessary electric transmission upgrades.