May 20, 2011

Iminent Eminent Domain and HB648

The Senate Judiciary Committee held its hearing on HB648 on Thursday, May 19, a bill meant to reaffirm constitutional protection of landowners from the use of eminent domain by private companies for private purposes. The bill passed the House overwhelmingly in late March. For a recap of the hearing, read Garry Rayno's story in the Union Leader here.

Clearly many present in Representatives Hall on Thursday would have HB648 be a referendum vote on the relative merits--or significant lack thereof--of the Northern Pass proposal itself. And there can be little question that the Northern Pass transmission line proposal has put a spotlight on the inconsistencies between Article 12 of the state constitution and RSA 371:1. These inconsistencies have led us to this: Northeast Utilities, PSNH, and Hydro-Quebec clearly believe that current law will let them use eminent domain for Northern Pass despite the constitutional protections in Article 12; opponents of the Northern Pass proposal, including the Forest Society,  believe that in voting for a constitutional amendment in 2006, 85% of New Hampshire citizens made it clear that private projects for private gain, such as Northern Pass, should not have access to the government's power of eminent domain.

Therein lies the conundrum HB648 attempts to resolve. Among those who made the most compelling case for the need and urgency of passing HB648 was Bob Baker, an attorney who lives in Columbia, NH, and represents 27 landowners who have already been impacted negatively by the Northern Pass proposal.

"The property owners have suddenly found that they can neither sell their properties for fair market value; nor get lenders interested in financing them or re-financing existing mortgages,"  Baker testified. "They have all, to a person, put a hold on further development and renovation of their properties. They all want to know more about their future and the prospects for keeping their land without it being taken by the state’s power of eminent domain for a private transmission line that none of them want—indeed that they believe will destroy the very reason for their ownership of their properties in the first place."

Furthermore, Baker argued, because of the extended timeline of the Northern Pass permitting process and the explicit use by Northern Pass representatives of the threat of eminent domain, the "taking" of property value has in fact already occurred. HB648, and a clear statement that eminent domain should not be used for a private proposal like Northern Pass, is the only way to restore the rights of those impacted landowners.

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