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Tiny Dixville Notch upends power plan of giant utility group

By Jason McLure

LITTLETON, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Dixville Notch, a tiny hamlet whose early presidential primary returns have helped to dash the hopes of some White House contenders, has upended the power plans of a giant utility consortium.

An environmental group has raised enough money to purchase the conservation rights to 5,800 acres of land in Dixville Notch near the U.S.-Canadian border in a deal that will block the proposed route for a $1.1 billion electric transmission line bringing power to southern New England from Quebec.

In just five weeks, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests succeeded in raising $850,000 to complete the deal under an agreement with the trust of rubber tycoon Neil Tillotson, said Jack Savage, a society spokesman.

"It was a pretty quick turnaround," Savage said in an interview on Monday. "In the end it was clear that more people than ever were voting with their wallets for conservation of the landscape rather than high-voltage power lines."

Opponents campaigned under the slogan of "Live Free or Fry," a twist on New Hampshire's "Live Free or Die" motto.

A group of Canadian and U.S. power companies had offered $2.2 million for the land rights, a key part of their plan to build a 140-mile power line capable of delivering 1,200 megawatts of power from dams in Quebec to New England.

The trust rejected that bid last month and chose to sell to the conservation group for less money, leading the utilities to appeal to New Hampshire's attorney general to block the sale.

Northern Pass, as the project is known, is a consortium that includes state-owned Hydro-Quebec, Massachusetts-based N-Star and Public Service of New Hampshire.

The plan has been opposed by some in northern New Hampshire who say the proposed 120-foot transmission towers will spoil the natural beauty of an area heavily dependent on tourism.

The effort to get the state to block the deal led to heightened publicity and a spike in donations, Savage said.

"We had any number of significant donors who made it clear to us that they were contributing more than they might have otherwise because of Northern Pass," he said.

The money came from more than 1,500 individual donors, along with a $150,000 anonymous contribution, Savage said.

New Hampshire Attorney General Michael Delaney approved the sale on December 23, conditional upon raising the funds by January 15.

"While Northern Pass had an interest in this specific utility right of way, we are continuing to successfully work with landowners as we consider other routing alternatives," the utilities said in a statement.

"We look forward to soon announcing a new proposed route that has the support of underlying land owners," the consortium said.

New Hampshire's state Senate is due to consider a bill this week designed to block Northern Pass from using eminent domain to take land from private landowners.

The controversy over the power lines briefly became an issue in New Hampshire's Republican presidential primary when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich stumped against the power project in a bid to win votes in the sparsely populated north.

Tiny Dixville Notch is known for opening its presidential polls at midnight and be the first town to vote in the influential New Hampshire presidential primaries.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Ellen Wulfhorst)

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