CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — As New Hampshire considers whether all new power lines should be underground, people on both sides of the debate agreed on one thing Wednesday: It's all about the economy.
A Senate committee heard several hours of testimony on a measure that would require transmission projects not deemed necessary for reliability by the region's power grid operator to be buried if there's no reasonable alternative. The bill, sponsored by Senate Republican Majority Leader Jeb Bradley of Wolfeboro, would task the state Department of Transportation with identifying energy corridors along state-owned or controlled rights of way — at least one running north-south and one running east-west — and require transmission projects to be built within those corridors.
Bradley was careful to say his bill was not specifically aimed to push underground the $1.4 billion Northern Pass proposal by Northeast Utilities that would run 187 miles through New Hampshire, all but 8 miles on overhead lines. But there was no denying that the proposal colored all the testimony.
"These projects need to be good neighbors," Bradley said. "The fact that there has not been a neighborly process is why we're at a stalemate."
Supporters of the buried lines say they'll spare the region the visual blight that cuts into property values and stunts economic development. Thomas Mullen, owner of the Owl's Nest Resort and Golf Club in Thornton, said sales of condominiums are hurting and the ones that do sell stay on the market for a long time and don't bring sellers anywhere near what they were asking.
"The good news is we've had some sales at Owl's Nest recently," he said. "The bad news is some people got terribly hurt. The damage is real. The damage is to real people."
Other supporters, including environmental groups, also pointed to projects in neighboring states that are burying transmission lines, including a proposal in Vermont and New York that would go under Lake Champlain.
"We are happy to have large-scale projects," said Nancy Martland, of Sugar Hill. "But we don't want yesterday's technology."
Opponents, including Northeast Utilities, say requiring contractors to bury the lines will add cost to projects, keep energy rates high and send an anti-business message that will scare away investment.
Dave Atkinson, owner of A.B. Logging & Trucking Inc. in Lancaster, said the state needs to encourage development and getting the Northern Pass project done could help attract manufacturers to the economically struggling North Country.
"We're debating a bill that clearly brings more regulations, more mandates and clearly more cost," Atkinson said.
Donald Pfundstein, representing Northeast Utilities, noted that the energy corridors established by the state might not line up with existing transmission lines or generators.
"This type of bill will obviously increase the cost of electricity," he said.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee could vote on whether to move the bill forward when it meets again in two weeks.