CONCORD, N.H. — The New Hampshire Senate voted 23-1 to prohibit a 180-mile electrical power project from Canada into southern New Hampshire from using eminent domain to acquire private land.
After a series of amendments to a House-passed bill on the project, the Senate agreed on a version that would block the Northern Pass project from using eminent domain but would leave the door open for future transmission projects that provide needed power to the region. Senators also added protections for property owners and created a commission to develop policies for burying power lines.
The House-passed bill was borne from opponents' fear that eminent domain would be used to take private land for Northern Pass. The project proposes to build 180 miles of power lines through the center of New Hampshire, including 40 miles through the scenic North Country.
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.
State Sen. James Rausch, R-Derry, was the lone senator to oppose the bill. Rausch told fellow senators he would vote against all versions of the bill because legislation would undermine the constitutional protections already in place.
A 2006 amendment to the New Hampshire constitution, Article 12-a, forbids using eminent domain for private developments.
"Passing legislation today is the wrong approach," Rausch said. "This serves to be misconstrued and would weaken 12-a of our constitution."
Others like state Sen. Jeanie Forrester, R-Meredith, whose amendment tightened the restrictions on eligible electrical transmission projects for eminent domain, viewed the bill as a reinforcement of the constitution.
"This is the first test of the true purpose of Article 12-a," said Forrester, "and the landowners of New Hampshire cannot afford the costs of failing this first test."
Northern Pass says it already owns the right of way up to the north of Grafton and it's attempting to purchase land or easements for the rest of the way. It has, however, faced stringent and vocal opposition from many North Country residents.
Northern Pass had looked to buy 5,800 acres surrounding the Balsams Grand Hotel in Dixville Notch for as much as $3 million. Instead, the Niel Tillotston Trust, which controls the parcel, accepted the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests' $850,000 offer for 7,700 acres as a way to keep Northern Pass out.
North Strafford resident Mark McCullock attended the meeting and said he was pleased with the outcome of the bill. He and his wife, Chelsea Petereit, said their neighbors had been threatened with eminent domain and worried Northern Pass would try to take their maple sugar farm, too.
"It would have been a dream come true destroyed," McCullock said.
The Senate was scrambling to fix a drafting error and vote on the corrected bill next week before sending it to the House.