By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH
CONCORD — Negotiating a construction agreement with Northern Pass without concrete information is like being asked, “Do you want a punch in the nose, or a punch in your mouth,” a Franconia selectman testified Monday before state regulators.
Construction plans for the town center’s vital intersection have changed three times, said Eric Meth, chair of the Franconia Select Board, noting it has gone from overhead transmission lines, to an underground tunnel to a horizontal directional drilling to a tunnel again.
“That is one of the concerns of the board, the plans changed quite a bit,” Meth said. “I am a little vague.”
He said the town has applied for a federal grant for a bicycle path to provide a safer route to the elementary school for students, but the exit area for directional drilling would be at one end of the path.
The community also plans to construct a sidewalk and cross walk for safer pedestrian traffic between Dow Field and the church parking lot across the street, he noted. The proposal would be impacted by the construction, he said.
Dow Field is used for many activities from soccer tournaments to fireworks on July 4 to old home day activities, Meth said. Those activities and others such as two annual bike races would need to be rescheduled or cancelled during construction of the project when there will be lane or road closures at the busy intersection.
Meth said the town’s emergency services are used by other communities including Sugar Hill and Easton, and lane or road closures would delay those services from five to 15 minutes.
And he raised concerns about town utilities buried along the route of the underground transmission line and whether the town would be reimbursed for additional costs it may incur because of the high-voltage line.
But attorney Barry Needleman, representing Northern Pass, said the town has refused to discuss any possible agreement which could address many of Meth’s concerns.
He said Northern Pass gave the town a proposed memorandum of understanding similar to ones negotiated with five other communities, but the Franconia Select Board did not respond, present any conditions to address concerns or make a counter proposal.
Meth said he does not know other communities’ concerns, but “we did not see this as a path to allay the fears residents have.”
Both Meth and Needleman used letters from the owners of the Gale River Motel and the Franconia Inn to make their points: Northern Pass has been unresponsive to specific concerns, and the company has responded to concerns.
Needleman said the letter from the owner of the Franconia Inn at least said he proposed ways to limit the impact if the project goes forward.
“Is it fair to project to your citizens that we do not engage with the town,” Needleman said, “when the town does not want to negotiate with the applicant.”
But Meth said the citizens question “why a high-voltage, (direct-current) line is running down our Main Street. It gets your blood boiling a little bit, speaking on behalf of our residents.”
Needleman said testimony from Eversource vice president Kenneth Bowes indicates much of the disruption at the routes 116 and 18 intersection could be avoided if the town were willing to grant Northern Pass an easement to use town land for a micro tunnel.
But Meth said the discussion was about Dow field which is vital to the town.
Would the town be willing to discuss this specific issue, Needleman asked, noting it would not have to be an official memorandum of understanding.
Meth said he did not want to speak on behalf of the board for this specific concern, but from past discussions with Northern Pass it would not be anything but “self-serving for Northern Pass.”
Needleman asked him to raise the issue with other board members, and if they wanted to talk they could have a discussion, and “if not, we won’t.”
Franconia passed a warrant article in 2012 opposing the project and has approved warrant articles the last two years to appropriate $10,000 and $30,000 to oppose the project.
Survey and property
Grafton County Attorney Lara Saffo asked Meth if his board had been notified whether the Department of Transportation accepted an official survey of the state right-of-way through Franconia.
Last summer the agency stopped work on Northern Pass requests to place the line under state roads because land surveys were inconclusive. Northern Pass agreed to do additional surveys to establish the state boundaries.
Does the town need an official survey to determine how far into properties the project would go, Saffo asked, and Meth said it does not.
Project developer Eversource has said repeatedly no private property will be impacted by the project along the underground route.
Is the lack of boundaries causing anxiety in the community, she asked. Meth said the possible encroachment on private and town property is a major concern.
Is it difficult for the town to reach a memorandum of understanding when the exact route is unclear and undefined, Saffo asked, and Meth said yes, but the board may be willing to have a discussion with developers when plans are more complete.
Nicholas Coates, Bristol town administrator, testified the Northern Pass project would interfere with the town’s and the region’s orderly development.
Under questioning by attorney Tom Pappas, representing the Counsel for the Public, Coates said the impacts would come from doubling the size of the transmission towers, increasing the intensity of the use of the utility right-of-way, and the new towers would be much more dominant in the landscape.
The right-of-way includes an historic barn built in 1790 and 26 wetlands that would be impacted, he noted.
Coates said the owners of the barn have talked to town officials about a tax abatements and neighbors have raised the issue as well.
Attorney Rebecca Walkley, representing Northern Pass, noted the project projects Bristol would receive $157,457 in property taxes in the first year of operation, which would mean the project would be the second largest taxpayer in the community.
Coates said that would be the first-year payment and would decrease over 40 years to zero.
Wouldn’t Coates agree that the project would be paying a significant amount in property taxes, Walkley asked.
“We welcome any additional revenue should (Northern Pass) be permitted,” Coates said. “but we feel the costs outweigh the benefits.”
The hearings continue Tuesday but are scheduled to end this week. The Site Evaluation Committee will begin deliberations on the project at the end of January and will issue an opinion by the end of February.
Eversource had hoped to have all federal and state permits by the end of this year with construction beginning next year and the transmission line finished by the end of 2020.
Garry Rayno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org