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Northern Pass money dividing North Country opinions

New Hampshire Union Leader

May 07. 2013 8:03PM

Land sales in the North Country have created another set of freshly minted millionaires, as partners in the Northern Pass hydroelectric project closed on two more large purchases to pave the way for the high-power transmission lines they hope will some day bring hydroelectric power from Quebec into the New England grid.

Meanwhile, a conservation group has obtained yet another large land easement to block them.

Renewable Properties, the land acquisition subsidiary created by Northeast Utilities, closed on two major deals at the end of April, according to tax stamps filed recently with the Registry of Deeds in Coos County.

Northern Pass now owns 20 acres in Stewartstown near the Clarksville town line, purchased for $4 million from William and Pauline Weir of Colebrook, where they own and operate the Weir Tree Farm.

Another 153 acres, also located in Stewartstown, was sold for $4.25 million by Peter and Hilda Weiner.

The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests recently closed a conservation easement on 295 acres in Columbia, owned by the Lewis family. The land is just south of the Balsams Wilderness Resort and abuts a parcel acquired by Northern Pass.

"The Lewis conservation easement prohibits Northern Pass - or any other proposed elective transmission line - from completing a route from the Canadian border in Pittsburg to Dixville and Millsfield to the east," said forest society spokesman Jack Savage. "The Forest Society has also blocked the primary intended route of Northern Pass through Stewartstown."

The competing real estate maneuvers are part of a ongoing duel between Northern Pass and the forest society, which has calculated the proposed route based on land purchases and has obtained easements or ownership rights at key blocking locations.

In January, Northern Pass closed on 319 acres for $5 million from the Roger Sylvestre family in Clarksville, while the Forest Society signed options that would enable conservation easements on two parcels totaling 364 acres along Bear Rock Road owned by Brad and Daryl Thompson.

According to the Northeast Utility's annual report for 2012, the company has spent $35.4 million on land acquisition for the project since 2010.

"We knew about these recent sales," said Savage. "We knew they were coming. We have strong relationships with people up north who let us know when things are happening."

Spokesmen for Northeast Utilities and its New Hampshire subsidiary, PSNH, have consistently declined to comment on land acquisitions, citing the privacy of the sellers.

Savage said the recent purchases by Northern Pass are contiguous to the anticipated route the company is trying to build, but do not address its fundamental problems of crossing the Connecticut River along Route 3 at the Canadian border, or clearing a narrow passage through conservation land in Stewartstown near the Connecticut Lakes Headwaters and Coleman State Park areas.

In order to complete the route as it appears to be unfolding, Northern Pass would have to get state easements to cross Route 3, perhaps underground, as well as easements through the conservation land.

While a Route 3 easement is possible, Savage said any attempt to cross land in the Connecticut Lakes Headwaters would face a tough legal challenge.

"From our standpoint, penetrating that easement is illegal regardless of who may be in the governor's chair or the commissioner of DRED (Department of Resources and Economic Development)," he said.

The land sales over the past year have created tensions in the previously close-knit, somewhat remote areas along the Canadian border, as families who sell have been under fire from those who oppose the project.

In a signed editorial on May 3, Charles J. Jordan, editor of the weekly Colebrook Chronicle, called out his neighbors.

"Those overnight millionaires among us must feel like they just won the Megabucks," he wrote.

"Just in case NP ultimately succeeds, we have a suggestion: let's plan to put large tourist information plaques along all the scenic highways that will be scarred by these wires and towers with the words inscribed: "This View Is Brought To You By Northern Pass And The Following Individuals Who Sold Their Property To Help Make It Possible." Maybe our new overnight millionaires would help pay for the signs."

That triggered a letter from William Weir to be published on Friday. "I did not want to sell and neither did my family," he wrote. "We turned down three substantial offers, but when the fourth was offered, we had a family vote and we decided to take the offer."

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