The Northern Pass Project | 'My Roots Are Deeper than Your Pockets'
Lynne Placey is a 66-year-old widow who loves teaching piano in her small house in Stewartstown, New Hampshire. She gives lessons on her mother’s instrument, which was made the year her mother was born, 1920. “I’ve enjoyed every minute of what I’ve done for 30 years,” Lynne says. “People say, ‘How do you listen to all those sour notes?’ [I reply,] ‘Because I know what’s coming. I can see down the road.'” She feels “very blessed” to teach piano.
Lynne used to have about 45 students a week. She was able to just get by on that, but lately the number of students has dwindled to about 18 a week. They’re too busy playing soccer, and not every home has a piano anymore. She doesn’t have any other income, except for Social Security. Her late husband, Donald, was ill for more than 10 years, confined to a hospital bed in their living room. Lynne would look after him between lessons. Then she broke her back, and two months later, on October 8, 2009, her husband died. Like many people, she didn’t have health insurance, and the long illness had wiped out their small savings.
A year later, her nephew Landon Placey came by to tell her how she could make a half-million dollars, just as he had done; her money worries would be over. He asked her not to tell anyone else about his visit; this was just between them. Landon had sold his property, 114 acres, to a utilities group, Northern Pass Transmission LLC, that wanted to build big high-voltage transmission towers across his land. He was one of the first to sell, and the contract he’d signed required him to secretly offer her the same opportunity, he said. Lynne’s husband had left her 78 acres on Holden Hill, about nine miles from her home. Her land was right next to her nephew’s, and it was in the path of the proposed power lines. Landon stayed quite a while trying to convince her to sell. Lynne told him what she’d told a real-estate agent who had called a month earlier: “I’ll listen to what you have to say, but I’m not selling.”
The Northern Pass is a $1.1 billion joint venture of Hydro-Quebec and Northeast Utilities (parent company of Public Service of New Hampshire), aiming to build a 180-mile transmission line through the Granite State. To do that, they want to cut 40 new miles of right-of-way to accommodate towers as tall as 80 to 140 feet. Since it was announced in October 2010, the project has angered and divided residents of the North Country.
On one of their first dates, Donald took Lynne to see his land on Holden Hill. “I think he was trying to impress me,” she says. Donald was one of eight children who had inherited land from his father, Guy Placey Sr., once the largest landowner in Stewartstown. Donald was proud of that land; he hunted and fished there. Later, they took their three small girls there for cookouts, and he’d take each daughter off by herself and teach her to fish.
“It was a beautiful piece of land,” Lynne says. “I grew to have a love for it like my husband’s.” There are good views in three directions: southeast to The Balsams’ ski area, southwest to Vermont’s Monadnock Mountain, and north to Pittsburg. And there’s a 35-acre field that was hayed up until 25 years ago. Lynne would like to bring that field back.
Shortly after her nephew’s visit, Lynne wrote a letter to local newspapers telling about her “secret” conversation: “Can you imagine what half a million dollars would do for me? I won’t tell you I didn’t give some thought to all that money. The gold-plated carrot was dangled in my face. Would I bite?” she wrote.
No: “On principle, the idea of a foreign corporation coming in to our pristine North Country to ruin it for their personal gain went against everything I believe in.” She was not for sale. Against all that money, she put up “my conscience, my ethics, my devotion to New Hampshire’s beauty, the memory of my husband, the love for my children and grandchildren, my concern for the health of those living near the towers, and more …” She asked that everyone stand together: Don’t believe them when they tell you Northern Pass is a done deal, that your land will be worthless if you don’t sell. Don’t let them isolate you; don’t let them scare you. Don’t sell out your neighbors. “I know in my heart,” she concluded, “I am doing what is best for my beloved North Country.” She signed it: “Yours truly, a devoted native.”
The response was overwhelming. The letter made Lynne Placey a North Country hero. “I got cards from all over the state thanking me for taking my stand,” she tells me. “And I got so many phone calls I recorded them on a cassette player because I wanted to be able to listen to them again.”
One of those calls was from the staff of Atta Girl Records in Thornton, New Hampshire. They invited her to Plymouth, where outside on the sidewalk, posing for a photo, they presented her with an oversized check for $2,000 that they had raised and another $650 from the Alliance Against Northern Pass and other groups. One man stopped to ask what was going on and wrote her a check on the spot.
It was a timely gift. Because of her nephew’s sale, Lynne had to have her land surveyed. “I really didn’t know how I was going to make ends meet, because I’d used any spare cash that I had to pay this,” she says. “Still, I knew I had to do it to protect myself on Holden Hill.” The money covered the survey and some of her lawyer’s fees.
“The thing is: You know material things are going to eventually rust out, break,” she says. “They’re going to end up in the garbage or in the dump, whatever. Or the recycling plant. I think it’s more important to leave my children and my grandchildren the inheritance of land. Because land is something that you can pass from one generation to the other. And they can enjoy working on the land just the same as we have, and Donald’s family before him.” Her grandchildren are talking about farming again, and she’s agreed to sell a conservation easement to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.
A stranger has come to town. He has suitcases full of money. He wants your land. Will you sell? Does everyone have a price? Is everything for sale–every last piece of land, every rock, mineral, pond, and mountain? Around kitchen tables, families are divided: Sell or don’t sell? And then your neighbor sells. He may be your nephew or the cousin you grew up with–and now he’s estranged. There’s a new stranger in town.
Strangers’ money has drawn a line across the land, sowing discord. It has divided the Placey family. They no longer talk to those who sold out. “We pleaded with them; we asked them not to sell,” Lynne says. But they wouldn’t listen; they wanted the money. Her sister-in-law is distraught. She was close to her nieces; she can’t believe that they would do this.
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