Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Battle Of Northern Pass: NHSEC Asked To Suspend Proceedings Over Inaccuracies In Plans

The Battle Of Northern Pass: NHSEC Asked To Suspend Proceedings Over Inaccuracies In Plans

NHDOT Rejects Northern Pass ROW Survey*

Robert Blechl
Caledonian Record
August 23, 2017

The Grafton County Commission is asking the N.H. Site Evaluation Committee to suspend its Northern Pass proceedings until the company submits accurate plans and resolves uncertainty about rights-of-way for the burial of lines under state highways.

At the same time, the N.H. Department of Transportation has rejected survey reports prepared by Northern Pass contractors requiring certification that the right-of-way (ROW) lines shown on the plans are accurate locations defined by ground survey and research.

“As stated … from the Bureau of Right of Way, neither of the reports submitted have met that requirement,” NHDOT engineer Melodie Esterberg wrote Northern Pass on Aug. 11. “It is critical that the ROW information on the plans is accurate as this is the basis for the Department to evaluate the proposed alignment of the [Northern Pass line] as it relates to the Department’s infrastructure.”

Additionally, in what is increasingly shaping to be a potential legal challenge, a growing number of towns are voicing concerns about Northern Pass claiming the right-of-way (ROW) width it needs to install underground transmission line could extend to and impact private property along the roads.

“For the accuracy of the plans to still be questioned by none less than the Department of Transportation after the construction panel has allegedly finished testimony is stunning,” Grafton County Attorney Lara Saffo, representing the GCC, wrote to the NHSEC.

In a 41-page motion with exhibits, Saffo said Northern Pass has submitted what appears to be more than 100 exception requests for its project, each significant and including exceptions pertaining to ROWs.

“The July 18, 2017 minutes, posted on Aug. 2, 2017, reflect DOT concerns about the accuracy of the diagrams provided by Northern Pass,” she wrote the NHSEC.

Quoting the meeting minutes, Saffo said, “Esterberg noted that these errors make Department personnel wonder about the accuracy of existing facilities and the right-of-way. Maintenance and Design Services personnel have been told to make NPT review a priority, but errors and inaccuracies are making the review take longer and diverting resources from personnel’s normal job responsibilities hinders highway maintenance and project development activities.”

She also asks the NHSEC to recall the construction panel to address the viability of the exception requests.

“[Northern Pass] cannot complain that deadlines are not being met when [it] continues to change the design of the project, adds exception requests and submits plans that have inaccuracies, necessitating DOT to now question ‘the accuracy of existing facilities and the right-of-way throughout the entire route,’” said Saffo.

In an objection to the GCC’s request to suspend NHSEC hearings, Northern Pass attorney Thomas Getz said the county commission’s pleading is without merit because it “continues to misapprehend the permitting role of the DOT in the SEC process” and the DOT process has been developed in a way that allows an applicant to refine its design over time and conform it to DOT’s specific requests.

But those changes are not sitting well with local towns.

On July 17 and July 31, respectively, the towns of Easton and Franconia wrote NHDOT Commissioner Victoria Sheehan, requesting she enact RSA 228:35, the statute on the reestablishment of highway boundaries.

On Monday, Bethlehem joined the two towns in petitioning Sheehan to enact the RSA to reestablish lost or uncertain ROWs along the North Country state roads that would be impacted. The line is proposed for burial under Routes 302 and 116 in Bethlehem and Routes 116 and 18 in Franconia and Easton.

In the Bethlehem letter, concerns were expressed that underground transmission line infrastructure could involve removing stone walls, trees, lawns, fences and gardens that private property owners believe are outside the ROW.

The ROWs aren’t clearly established and there are undetermined widths, Cheryl Jensen, chair of the Bethlehem Conservation Commission and the town’s liaison for Northern Pass matters, said to selectmen Monday.

“Property owners don’t understand the ramifications this could have on their properties,” she said.

In an Aug. 8 response to the town of Easton, Sheehan said the formal reestablishment of the ROW through RSA 228:35 is typically only considered when, after thorough investigation, the location of the ROW is not defined or there are questions about it.

NHDOT is currently requiring Northern Pass to complete a survey report that will document and define the types of ROW on the segments where the project would be within state roads, she said.

“The survey report must compile this information and be completed to the DOT’s satisfaction,” wrote Sheehan. “Northern Pass has not provided this information in a satisfactory format at this time.”


NHDOT's rejection of NPT's right-of-way survey (8/11/2017) is here. The DOT's overall page on Northern Pass, including NPT's 122 requests for exceptions to DOT's rules, is here.