On a spring day Nigel Manley, the manager of The Rocks Estate in Bethlehem, stands on a little knoll and admires the view.
“The Presidential Range. Today snow-covered and absolutely beautiful,” he says.
But this scene could become a new front in the battle opponents of Northern Pass are waging.
The reason is that federal officials are getting ready to explore whether the visual impact or construction of Northern Pass will harm any of the state’s historical sites, which includes The Rocks.
The Rocks Estate is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, described as “one of the best preserved of the numerous grand private estates that appeared in New Hampshire during the late nineteenth century.”
Its location was chosen for its view and that’s the concern.
Manley points out an existing right of way for Public Service of New Hampshire. Its towers run through the lower third of the view.
It is part of the route Northern Pass wants to use for its new towers. They’ll be significantly taller, designed to carry hydro-electric power from Canada the length of the state.
Manley says it would be a high-rise “scar” that would disappoint busloads of tourists from Europe and Asia who come to see The Rocks.
That’s why the owner of The Rocks, The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, is planning to protest the impact, using Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.
That requires the Department of Energy to consider historical impacts as part of its decision whether to give Northern Pass the Presidential Permit needed to bring hydro-electric power from Canada.
There is a lot to consider in New Hampshire, says Elizabeth Muzzey, the director of the state’s Division of Historical Resources, which will play a key role.
“In New Hampshire we have incredibly diverse resources, everything from a typical house built in the 1800s that pops up first in a lot of people’s minds, town halls are another one,” she says. “We have landscapes, we have archaeological sites, we have engineering structures.”
The review must consider sites that have the potential to be on the National Register but are not yet listed, says Patrick Parenteau, a professor specializing in Environmental Law at the Vermont Law School.
“The law reaches out and protects even eligible properties,” he says.
Muzzey notes the law encourages interested people, groups and towns to get involved and share historic concerns.
They can do that by seeking what’s called consulting party status from the U.S. Department of Energy.
One group that wants to be involved is The New Hampshire Commission on Native American Affairs.
“For Native Americans it is very important to us to be able to preserve our sacred places and our historic sites,” says Sherry Gould, its chairperson.
The Appalachian Mountain Club also wants to be involved, citing its concern over the Appalachian Trail, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
And the number of requests may increase.
Responsible Energy Action LLC, a website for opponents of Northern Pass, is urging towns and citizens to seek consulting-party status if they feel any historic buildings or features could be affected.
Northern Pass hasn’t yet disclosed its long-promised new route through Northern Coos County.
So, the historic review will begin by focusing on the 140 miles expected to follow existing rights of way owned by PSNH.
The U.S. Department of Energy and Muzzey’s Division of Historical Resources have worked out some guidelines for how big an area will be considered.
For example researchers will consider the visual impact on historic properties for one mile on either side of the rights of way.
But that could be farther “due to local topographic and historic factors.”
It will also consider the impact of construction, including access roads.
In a March 26 letter a lawyer for Northern Pass told the Department of Energy she was concerned about the scope of the review being too large. She described the plan as “burdensome and time-consuming.”
And, she said, when route is complete they may try to limit the scope of the review.
Michael Skelton, a spokesman for Northern Pass and Public Service of New Hampshire, had no additional comment.
That review will be conducted by teams chosen by the Department of Energy and paid by Northern Pass.
However, their work will be reviewed by Muzzey’s Division of Historical Resources and State Archeologist Richard Boisvert.
This review isn’t something that would stop the Northern Pass project, says Parenteau, the environmental law professor.
“It wouldn’t be a roadblock. It wouldn’t be the kind of statute that says you simply can’t build the project,” he says.
But it could force Northern Pass to change a part of a route and it could cost Northern Pass time and money.
If it isn’t carried out properly it could result in a lawsuit, he says.
“There are many cases on the books where projects have been stopped because of failure to comply with the Historic Preservation Act,” he notes.
Northern Pass opponents say they’re upset that the the Department of Energy didn’t announce the historical review was beginning.
Northern Pass opponents have complained previously that the federal agency is not being transparent in its dealings.
A blogger for the Responsible Energy Action LLC website disclosed the review after finding letters between the agency and state officials filed on the DOE website.
Niketa Kumar, a spokeswoman for the DOE, didn’t directly respond to a question when asked why the opening of the Section 106 review wasn’t posted on the Department of Energy website.
But she did note the review is in its early stages and the Department of Energy “is committed to ensuring that each of these steps is fully met and is working closely with the New Hampshire Division of Historic Resources throughout the process.”
It isn’t clear when the fieldwork will begin.