NH News
5:30 am
Thu January 16, 2014

A Shifting Baseline: Would We 'Get Used' To Northern Pass?

Meagan Therriault and Geoff Pinard's driveway spills out almost directly beneath the Phase II power line.
Meagan Therriault and Geoff Pinard's driveway spills out almost directly beneath the Phase II power line.
Credit John Hession / NH Magazine

Second in a three part series

It’s possible that the Northern Pass, a 186-mile transmission line Public Service of New Hampshire proposed in 2010, might be built over the many objections of the project’s opponents. Its developers hope it can gain state and federal approval and construction can be completed by 2017.

If that does happen would people get used to it, or would it become a permanent scar on the state as opponents fear?

There’s an idea that a fisheries scientist came up with called the shifting baseline. It says that we take for granted whatever world we are born into.

New Hampshire, for instance, is full of baselines that have shifted. “I mean a hundred years ago, New England was full of farms and there weren’t the vast forests that you think of in New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont, most of it was farmland,” says Ecological Historian Karen Alexander.

This is perhaps why amid the uproar around Northern Pass, there has been little attention paid to the people already living with similar kinds of power lines. For many, these lines are already part of the scenery.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Goffstown, where National Grid’s Phase II line – which uses the same technology proposed for Northern Pass – is about 300 feet from the back porches of a couple dozen homes.

John Turner owns one of those homes and he doesn’t have a problem living here. “I grew up where our little league field was abutting power lines and I remember those spring days where we were playing baseball and you could hear the hum and the crack and the hiss of the power lines,” he says.

But at the same time, that doesn’t mean he likes them. “I think what I have in my backyard, Every time I drive under them is an eyesore,” he clarifies.

Turner’s house is in development that hugs the Phase II right-of-way, and making my way down the street, knocking on doors, nobody really seemed bothered to live near them. Of course, going to a development built underneath power lines obviously yields a biased sample, because anyone who really hates them won’t buy a house so close.

These are folks whose baseline has shifted.

Another North South Divide

But that’s Southern New Hampshire, where many have moved to get their kids in good school districts, or to be close to jobs. When you drive about a hundred miles North of Goffstown to Sugar Hill, you find folks who have a decidedly different baseline.

“I don’t really know people down there, it’s hard for me to compare the communities, but I know that here people treasure the landscape,” says Nancy Martland a vocal Northern Pass opponent and Sugar Hill resident, “They view this as an unnecessary insult, and they’re just not willing to accept it.”

Martland is standing at the top of a prominent sledding hill on the western side of Sugar Hill. At the bottom of the valley the current PSNH transmission line, constructed to bring electricity to the region here decades ago, is masked by the trees.

She and other opponents say the impacts of the power line would be worse in the North Country, where there are more people who have moved North for the mountains and the views.

Nancy Martland stands atop a sledding hill, along the bottom of which the current PSNH transmission line is masked by trees.
Nancy Martland stands atop a sledding hill, along the bottom of which the current PSNH transmission line is masked by trees.
Credit John Hession / NH Magazine

“Why should anyone be asked to get over something like that when there’s no need for them to have to get over it?” says Martland who sees power lines everywhere now. She drives under the Phase II line pretty frequently, “I’m horrified when I see it. I’m horrified every time I see it and I see it a lot.”

Surveys show that people like Martland who are around before a controversial power line is built, tend to continue hating it for a long time, much more strongly than newcomers. That’s perhaps no surprise. But that people like Martland exist in the same world as people who would happily buy a house next to a power line is emblematic of the fight to characterize the impacts of the Northern Pass project.  

One side of the debate loudly proclaims that the project would destroy New Hampshire’s scenery, fundamentally changing the character and culture of New Hampshire and driving away tourists and second-home buyers. While the other declares the project would eventually blend right in, and have no impact what-so-ever on the property values of abutting homes.

Power Pylons and Property Prices

It’s next to impossible to quantify to what degree some of these claims have merit, but the best proxy we have is property values: will people still be willing to come here?

To bolster their claims, the project’s critics point to the experience of realtors in the North Country.

“What we’re seeing now on a day-to-day basis is buyers choosing not to buy. It’s putting people into a horrible financial situation, because they can’t sell their property at any price,” says Andrew Smith, who has sold homes above and below Franconia Notch for 20 years.

Smith says his firm represents about 20 properties that aren’t selling because they are near the proposed route. “The fear of the unknown is a huge impact right now,” he explains.

But at the same time, there’s a large body of research that has looked at the effect that power lines have on property values, and it is by no means conclusive.

“Some of the general findings and some of these may be somewhat counter-intuitive, but some of the studies found really minimal impacts on property values,” says Thomas Jackson a real-estate appraiser from Texas who has a Ph.D for his work studying these kinds of impacts.

He says about half of the studies, done in different parts of the country often in sub-divisions and suburban areas, find no impact on property values despite the concerns of communities. “They have concerns, and I’m not discounting those concerns and perceptions, but a lot of times they don’t get born out in the marketplace,” he says.

The Bad News

But sometimes there are impacts.

A study of Canadian homes funded by Hydro-Quebec in 2002 found that in some scenarios homes can lose an average of 10 percent of their value.

But it takes having a tower right in plain view of the front door. That’s the case for Meagan Therriault and Geoff Pinard’s house in Goffstown. They have a striking view of the transmission corridor, and their driveway spills out practically underneath the towers.

“We couldn’t afford to be in this neighborhood if it wasn’t for this house, because of the fact that it was near power lines,” says Therriault.

But in the same neighborhood, a half-dozen homeowners said they didn’t think they got a good deal in the slightest for buying a home near the power lines. “Back in 2005 the properties were limited. To buy something this size you had to buy where you could in this area,” says John Turner.

The interaction between power lines and property values is by no means straight forward. A study often cited by Northern Pass finds that certain homes are more likely to take a hit to their value than others. Small, purely residential lots in markets with a many alternatives were observed to lose as much as 30 percent of their value.

But on the other hand that same Hydro-Quebec study even found that some houses, ones that were on the right-of-way but didn’t have a view of the towers, even tend to sell for slightly more. The study’s author thinks this is because a view looking out onto an empty right-of-way has certain advantages. “They can go naked in their living room without being bothered by neighbors,” Francois Des Rosier elaborates.

So to put it simply, and without providing any real conclusions, throwing up a power line might take a big chunk out of the value of certain homes, but many may not be affected at all.

The Wrong Question

“There’s always a buyer for everything, and it just takes a little bit longer to sell homes that are near power lines,” says Hopkinton realtor Judy Hampe, who has sold homes near the Phase II line for over 20 years. She says the studies don’t tell her much.

She drove me around to look at various homes she has sold that abut the Phase II right-of-way, and thinks there are so many variables – from the characteristics of an individual home to the kind of market it’s sold into – that impacts can only really be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Phase II has been in service since 1990, and connects Des Cantons, Quebec to Ayer, Massachusetts.
Phase II has been in service since 1990, and connects Des Cantons, Quebec to Ayer, Massachusetts.
Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR

And simply, not everyone cares about seeing the pylons… not everyone has the same baseline.

“I would say about fifty percent of the market really cares,” Hampe says after thinking on homes she has sold recently.

So would the state get over Northern Pass if it were built? The answer is likely something along the lines of — some would, some wouldn’t.  

“We seem to be capable of getting used to a lot — things that we people couldn’t even imagine,” says Karen Alexander noting that fights over many big developments, like the highway through Franconia Notch, have come and gone and been all but forgotten.

“I suppose if Northern Pass got through, in 30 or 40 years people would look at it and say, ‘Oh, that’s just those big power lines,’” she says, “but I don’t think whether we can get used to them is the right question, the question is whether we should get used to them.”

Tomorrow, we’ll continue looking at these questions. Namely, where will New England’s power be coming from in the future.