By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH
CONCORD — The Northern Pass Transmission project purchased a seven-acre parcel of land in Concord to help protect the endangered Karner Blue Butterfly as part of its environmental mitigation plan.
The track is in a commercial zone and Northern Pass developer Eversource did not discuss purchasing the site with Concord planning officials, the officials said Thursday at an adjudicative hearing on the project before the Site Evaluation Committee.
Concord Deputy City Solicitor Danielle Pacik asked City Planner Heather Shank if the utility company had consulted with Concord about the 60 Regional Drive site as a conservation area and Shank said the company did not.
She said the city recently learned of the purchase and really would like commercially zoned land to be used for that purpose.
“We don’t know why they picked this site when other sites were recommended,” Shank said. “It was kind of a surprise. We could have offered some better solutions for them and for us if they had come back and had a conversation about it.”
Concord Conservation Commission member Jan McClure said there is no guarantee the mitigation parcel will be used by the Karner Blue Butterflies as it is not contiguous with their current habitat.
Another Conservation Commission member Kristine Tardiff said because the Regional Drive area has been “disturbed,” it will have to be restored and that may not be effective.
Attorney Jeremy Walker, representing Northern Pass, said the project has reduced the impact to 1,042 of the 28,000 square feet of wild lupines growing within the right-of-way. The plant is essential to the continued survival of the Karner Blue Butterfly.
Walker said that should alleviate some concerns and he noted the US Fish and Wildlife Service has determined the project would not jeopardize the survival of the Karner Blue.
But Tardiff said that means the project will not drive the species to extinction, not that it would not harm the species.
Walker asked if they had any reason to disagree with the federal agency, but McLure said she and other members of the commission had not read the report and could not comment.
The Concord City Council voted in 2015 to oppose the Northern Pass project.
On Thursday, city officials expressed concerns about the project’s impact on residential and commercial property along the route and on what they called significant heritage landscape properties. They also expressed concerns about possible environmental damage and the transmission line’s impact on the city’s gateway zoning district where the transmission line crosses Loudon and Sheep Davis roads.
The new $1.6 billion, 1,090 megawatt transmission line would be located in the existing utility right-of-way that traverses eight miles of the city’s east-side from Canterbury to Pembroke.
Some of the tallest towers for the project are proposed for Concord due to a narrow right-of-way and the number of existing electric lines within the easement boundaries.
During Thursday’s hearing, the city’s wetlands expert, Dr. Rick Van De Poll of Ecosystem Management Consultants LLC, said Northern Pass’s environmental experts missed five significant wetlands that he found in March and visited again this summer and confirmed their designation.
“In three locations, I found wetlands not even marked on project maps,” Van De Poll said, “and in two of the three they would be impacted by construction activity.”
A vernal pool not found by Northern Pass was in fact a vernal pool meeting the state requirements, he said, that would also be impacted by construction.
And he said some of the wetlands that Northern Pass says will be temporarily impacted will suffer permanent damage.
How you determine impact is by assessing wetlands function, he said, noting there are 12 different functions needed for a working wetlands system.
“Some temporary impacts affect functions for longer periods of time,” Van De Poll said.
He said some tower placements will permanently damage wetlands functions and will never return to what they are today.
Van De Poll said workers at Eversource pole replacement in Rindge used timber mats to protect wetlands. Once they were removed, he said the soil had lost its integrity and there were deep grooves that will not be restored over time.
He said he has concerns the same thing will happen at a pole replacement planned for Turtle Pond.
The city’s deputy city planner Beth Fenstermacher said Northern Pass’s visual aesthetics experts failed to identify four significant heritage landscape properties, three farms — the Blood, Carter Hill and Diamond Hill farms — and several downtown buildings.
Although she did not analyze the visual impact of Northern Pass from those areas, she said the towers would be visible. The city has invested in retaining the farms and conserving the properties, she said, and they are popular locations with residents and tourists.
Fenstermacher also discussed a rating system she used to gauge the potential visual impact the project would have on residential and commercial property along the route.
Attorney Barry Needleman, representing Northern Pass, questioned her methodology. Most of the people and none of the businesses have publicly expressed concerns or submitted comments to the Site Evaluation Committee, he said.
He showed the Irving Oil site, one she rated would have visual impact from the transmission line, and asked if Fenstermacher had contacted the company and she said she did not.
Needleman asked if she had contacted Energy North, another site she listed with high impact, and Fenstermacher said she did not, but added the exercise was to alert homeowners and businesses that would have a significant change in their view.
“So you had no discussion with the applicant team and no discussion with the owner,” Needleman asked and she said, “No.”
Shank said the 150-foot towers would be disruptive to the city’s goals in the gateway performance district along Loudon Road.
She noted the new single-building and strip development in the area will not be sustaining for decades which is one of the goals.
Shank said other communities are doing more dense, mixed use developments that are sustainable, but having 150-foot towers will hurt the city’s attempt to revitalize the area around the Steeplegate Mall.
Committee members Christopher Way, of the Department of Business and Economic Affairs, and William Oldenberg of the Department of Transportation, questioned whether the transmission line was a deterrent to the new businesses.
Have any of the big box stores complained, asked Way, and Shank said the store’s manager is not likely to complain to the city, that any concern would have to come from someone higher up.
“How can you say this will not have a negative impact on our city,” said city councilor Candace Bouchard. “Something as intrusive and the visual blight of Northern Pass will be the first thing people will notice and not the businesses and it will have a negative impact on those living there and their property values.”
Adjudicative hearings continue Friday with representatives from the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and the New England Power Generators Association.
The Site Evaluation Committee is not expected to make a final decision on the high-voltage transmission line until the end of February.
Garry Rayno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org