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Rindge resident Greg Walsh jokes that he has his Santa runway lights ready to guide Old St. Nick in safely.


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Expansive Fitzwilliam solar project gets official green light from SEC
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A large solar project in Fitzwilliam has officially received the go-ahead from the relevant state regulatory body.

The N.H. Site Evaluation Committee had already voted in October to approve the 30-megawatt Chinook Solar Project, after finding that it met all the criteria. On Thursday, the committee issued a written order granting the project a certificate of site and facility, which allows it to proceed.

The facility will be the largest solar array in New Hampshire by far, with about 10 times the capacity of the biggest one built to date. It was also the first solar project big enough to come before the Site Evaluation Committee, which approves large energy facilities.

“I’m so proud of the Monadnock Region for being the first to have a big solar install like this,” said Patricia Martin of Rindge, a climate-change activist who followed the proceedings.

She praised Fitzwilliam’s elected leaders and residents for showing up at public hearings, thoroughly vetting the project and, ultimately, being willing to host a large new source of clean energy. “It’s really easy to take that not-in-my-backyard approach.”

Certificate and MOU for Fitzwilliam solar project

NextEra Energy Resources, the Florida-based company behind the project, has said it plans to finish construction by the end of next year. A company spokeswoman could not provide more specifics Monday because the relevant people were off for the holidays.

NextEra has secured rights to about 500 acres south of Route 119, between Route 12 and Fullam Hill Road, though most of that will be left intact. The facility is expected to cover about 110 acres, according to the company’s application materials.

Consisting of more than 100,000 solar panels, the array will be capable of producing up to 30 megawatts at a time — though the average output will be much lower, as it is for all solar, due to factors like cloud cover and nighttime. NextEra says it’ll produce enough energy annually to power about 7,000 homes.

Power companies in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have signed agreements to buy the electricity, part of their efforts to meet clean-energy goals in those states.

By law, the Site Evaluation Committee had to consider multiple factors before approving Chinook. It had to determine that the project would serve the public interest, wouldn’t get in the way of the region’s “orderly development” and wouldn’t seriously undermine aesthetics, public health or the environment. NextEra also had to prove it has the financial and technical ability to build and run the facility.

Local officials have also done their due diligence, said Suzanne Gray, chairwoman of the Fitzwilliam Planning Board. She said the selectboard, planning board and conservation commission were all involved, and the town — at NextEra’s expense — hired experts to review the potential impacts on wetlands, wildlife and other areas.

Their feedback, Gray said, was incorporated into a memorandum of understanding between the town and NextEra. Compliance with that agreement is one of the requirements of the Site Evaluation Committee’s approval.

The memorandum states that NextEra will implement the recommendations of the town’s environmental consultant and place the land it controls surrounding the facility under conservation easements. The agreement also covers a range of other topics, from setting maximum noise levels to a $900,000 bond NextEra will put up to ensure the facility is decommissioned properly decades from now.

The agreement also promises Fitzwilliam a onetime “community benefit payment” of $300,000 once the project is up and running, to be used as the town wishes.

The town’s initial concerns included noise, environmental impacts and visibility, said Daniel Baker, the chairman of the selectboard. He said NextEra has been responsive, and town officials are satisfied with how the company has addressed those issues so far.

“We do plan to monitor it,” Baker said. “We’ve had a pretty good relationship with Chinook. They’ve actually done what they’ve said they’re going to do to date, and I hope that continues.”

NextEra representatives have also expressed interest in negotiating a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreement with the town, which would commit the company to paying the town a flat annual rate, instead of a variable amount of property taxes each year. In its application, filed in October 2019, NextEra estimated a rate of $300,000 per year, in addition to about $160,000 annually in state utility tax.

Baker said those negotiations are still ongoing. He declined to comment on the figures under consideration.

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Some area churches taking cautious approach to Christmas services
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Christmas is one of the most significant holidays in the Christian religion and often draws larger-than-usual crowds to services — not ideal when COVID-19 guidelines still call for limiting contact with large groups.

As a result, some churches are being creative with their services and many of the traditions that surround them this year. Others are holding in-person services without social distancing or mask requirements.

Sometimes, said Rev. David Felton, pastor at the First Church in Jaffrey, forced creativity can produce some silver linings.

The First Church in Jaffrey isn’t meeting in person for its usual Christmas Eve service, but will be providing an online service for its congregation to watch at home. And some members who wouldn’t have had the chance to participate otherwise get to join in, Felton said.

“We realized that since we’re recording it all in advance, remotely, there are things we can do different than ever before,” Felton said.

Felton said he invited lay readers, people who were members of the church but are away for the winter, or who grew up in Jaffrey but have since moved away, to participate.

“We can bring in people that we wouldn’t necessarily have in person. It’s a silver lining. It’s different, very different. But it has to be this year, because our first concern is keeping people safe. We don’t want to be a spreader,” Felton said.

Singing is one of the possible big spreaders of the virus, as it causes people to project and spread their breath and water molecules over a farther distance. At the same time, Christmas carols and hymns are an integral part of the holiday. The First Church in Jaffrey isn’t the only house of worship to find a way to still have music be a part of its Christmas celebrations.

The Union Congregational Church in Peterborough has already had a Christmas sing-along via Zoom earlier this month, and is planning another service of carols via Facebook Live right after Christmas.

The Peterborough UCC won’t be having an in-person service on Christmas Eve, instead streaming a 7 p.m. service to its members through Facebook Live, but some churches that have been allowing membership through the doors are planning to do the same for Christmas Eve.

Jaffrey Bible Church is making some changes to its Christmas services this year, including canceling its traditional soup dinner, which usually follows its Christmas Eve service.

Jaffrey Bible Church Pastor Fouad Faris said the service will happen in person, though he’s expecting a lower turnout than usual, and depending on the weather, may have some outdoor fellowship time, but the annual supper creates too big a risk to continue this year. The church’s traditional Christmas pageant is also canceled this year.

The traditional Christmas concert is still happening, Faris said, but is being recorded with individual members separately, and then put online.

The church has been offering in-person services, with an option for members to attend online, and has been seeing about 50 percent capacity, Faris said, which makes social distancing possible, though members are still asked to wear masks unless they are in their designated seats.

Faris said the church has been careful, and went to remote services for a few weeks when Faris quarantined after a family member of his was ill, and when a member of the church tested positive for COVID-19. But thus far, there hasn’t been any significant spread within the congregation.

Pastor Ken Whitson of the New Ipswich Congregational Church said the church’s Christmas Eve service typically draws more than 100 people to the church, and will still go on this year. However, the church has already started to consider how to maintain social distancing with more people than usual in the pews, including requiring overflow seating in the balcony and additional chairs.

“We just will deal with whomever comes through the door, as we have been week to week,” Whitson said.

Whitson said the church has been lucky so far, and able to hold in-person services for some time. The church did shut down its youth group for several weeks, after a member’s sibling tested positive for COVID-19. The church didn’t have any positive tests within its own youth group, however, and has been vigilant about social distancing and masking, Whitson said. He said some events that are typically open to the public have been reduced to only members of the church’s Sunday school, and its Bible study groups have moved online, and those precautions will continue.

“We’re following the guidelines of the state, and we have been following those guidelines right along, and we haven’t had a problem,” Whitson said. “That’s working well for us.”

Christian Outreach in Rindge, which had several weeks of remote-only services last month due to positive cases among the congregation, is back in person and also looking forward to Christmas Eve services, said Pastor Bob Hakala.

Hakala, who said the Christmas Eve service typically draws about 100 people, said the church won’t be requiring social-distancing measures or masks, despite the statewide mandate on them.

“We don’t do that. It’s come as you are,” he said. The church does plan to livestream the service for members who don’t want to or cannot attend in person, he said.

Senate sends huge relief package to president for signature
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WASHINGTON — The Senate, late on Monday, approved a mammoth package of emergency economic relief, government funding and tax cuts, sending one of the largest pieces of legislation ever approved by Congress to President Donald Trump for enactment.

The legislation was the product of intense negotiations over the past two weeks and was introduced as a 5,593-page bill Monday. The Senate passed the bill with a 91-7 vote at 11:42 p.m., roughly two hours after the House of Representatives had easily passed it. It reflected a growing unease in Washington about the downward pressure on the economy triggered by a spike in the number of coronavirus cases and deaths in recent months.

“Yes, there is more work to do, and it will cost some money, but it will protect jobs and, most importantly, it will meet the needs of the American people — to crush this virus and to do so in a way that brings us all into the future in a very safe way,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said.

The bill illustrated the urgent rush by the White House and Congress to complete numerous unresolved tasks during a chaotic lame-duck session before the holiday recess. Efforts to pass economic relief measures in the weeks leading up to the presidential election failed repeatedly, but a group of lawmakers quickly banded together after President-elect Joe Biden won the Nov. 3 race and pushed for swift action to help households and businesses.

The $900 billion economic-relief component of the legislation has received the most attention, but the bill would do many other things, including funding federal agencies through September 2021 and extending tax breaks for numerous businesses for at least the next year. The tax provisions alone would slash taxes by about $150 billion, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation.

The bill was assembled overnight Sunday and through the day Monday, after a bipartisan deal over the weekend.

Lawmakers were committed to finishing the bill Monday, even as the day dragged into night. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said earlier Monday that lawmakers were “going to stay here until we finish tonight.”

The speed and scope of the legislative rush startled some lawmakers as details from the massive bill emerged Monday. The proposal includes numerous provisions — such as the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum Act, legislation to rein in surprise medical billing, an extension of a tax credit for racehorse owners, and policies supporting Tibet — that appear to have nothing to do with the coronavirus pandemic or the national economic emergency.

Senate leaders announced the breakthrough agreement on a coronavirus relief package Sunday night after several weeks of negotiations. The legislation brokered by congressional leaders includes about $325 billion in business relief, including about $275 billion for another round of Paycheck Protection Program funding. It would also extend federal unemployment benefits of up to $300 per week, which could start as early as Dec. 27.

The legislation also addresses dozens of other needs, including $45 billion for transportation including state transportation departments and Amtrak, $82 billion for schools, $20 billion for vaccine distribution and $13 billion for a major expansion in food stamps.

One of the main planks of the bill includes sending direct payments of $600 to Americans who earned less than $75,000 in the preceding tax year. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Monday said millions of Americans could begin seeing stimulus payments as soon as next week.

Although many lawmakers from both major parties have said the bill would provide relief to businesses and households hammered by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, disagreements had sprung up about whether it would be enough.

Mnuchin said in a CNBC interview Monday that the package was “fabulous” and should see the United States through the other side of the economic recovery.

President-elect Joe Biden said in a statement Sunday that “this action in the lame duck session is just the beginning. Our work is far from over.”

In the CNBC interview, Mnuchin cited conversations with numerous business executives whose firms saw an immediate boost from the disbursal of stimulus payments. “The direct payments get into the economy very quickly,” Mnuchin said. “This is a large bill, and it has a little bit of everything for everybody.”

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., told CNBC Monday that he opposed another round of stimulus payments, noting that many Americans have not lost their jobs during the pandemic but will still receive the government assistance. A bipartisan framework released this month excluded another round of stimulus payments.

Despite the breakthrough on the deal, market futures tumbled Monday as European countries implemented travel bans in response to a virus mutation in Britain.

The economic-relief component of the bill would bring the total level of emergency government spending this year to more than $3.3 trillion, illustrating the sheer volume of aid that the White House and Congress tried to use to address the coronavirus pandemic. In March, when the pandemic’s impact on the U.S. economy intensified rapidly, Congress passed the $2 trillion Cares Act. That law distributed $1,200 stimulus checks to more than 100 million people, created a massive small business aid program, extended money for airlines, unemployment benefits, provided rental and student loan assistance, and authorized a range of other programs.

Many economists say that law helped prevent a major economic contraction, but a number of the programs expired over the summer or later in the year, just as the pandemic began raging across the country again. After the November election, Democratic leaders also signaled that they would back down from their previous insistence on a giant spending bill after Biden won the election, expressing hope that he would be willing to pursue another package in early 2021.The massive bill spotlights how many things were left unresolved by Congress and the White House this year, particularly as political brawls dominated Washington in the months leading up to the election. Many of the tax provisions inserted into the bill have to deal with expiring provisions that lawmakers have had all year to tackle. And they have had months to vote on a government funding bill to keep agencies operating through September, but those talks bogged down into debates about immigration, and lawmakers from both parties dug in before the Nov. 3 election.

The stimulus component was debated for months and led to numerous fights between the White House and congressional leaders. House Democrats passed a $3.4 trillion measure in May that the White House and Senate Republicans largely dismissed. There was an effort to revive talks in July and August, but those also went nowhere amid a fight over whether to extend aid to states and cities.

The stimulus talks were revived in recent weeks after a bipartisan group of mostly rank-and-file lawmakers in the House and the Senate tried to push a more tailored bill into law, worried about what a new surge of coronavirus cases might mean for the economy. They decided to cut out two of the more divisive provisions to secure a broader agreement.

A demand from Democrats for more money for cities and states was largely stripped out of the final bill, as was a push by many Republicans that companies have broad protection from employee-led lawsuits and regulatory actions if there are outbreaks at workplaces. Fights over those measures are expected to continue in 2021.

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Panel urges investment in housing, outlines homelessness approach
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In its first report, a revamped advisory council recommends the state spend an additional $10 million on affordable housing over the next two years, expand Medicaid services for people experiencing housing insecurity and consider extending tenant protections during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The N.H. Council on Housing Stability, which replaced the N.H. Interagency Council on Homelessness, also announced in its Dec. 11 report the creation of four subcommittees to address specific housing needs.

Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, convened the new council last month after all 13 Granite State mayors pressed his administration to do more to address housing insecurity and homelessness, charging it with updating the state’s homelessness plan and offering legislative recommendations. Council members comprise representatives from state agencies, elected officials like Keene Mayor George Hansel, and at least two people who have experienced housing insecurity.

Hansel — who has said that emergency shelters and support services are overly concentrated in cities — called the Dec. 11 report a “first step” and said he hopes to offer insight into municipal and regional housing needs.

“Homelessness and housing insecurity is not a new issue for the state of New Hampshire, but it’s one that we definitely need to pay some attention to,” he said Monday.

Indeed, the council’s report noted that New Hampshire counted 1,675 people experiencing homelessness in its annual Point-in-Time count in January of this year — a federally mandated one-night tally of everyone in the state without permanent shelter. That figure marked a 279-person increase from last year and was the state’s highest PIT count since 2013.

Acknowledging the PIT count does not fully capture the state’s homeless population, the report also cited data from the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services that found more than 4,230 Granite Staters received emergency shelter or transitional services last year. And based on a broader definition of homelessness than the PIT count, 4,043 children experiencing homelessness were enrolled in New Hampshire public schools in 2017–18, according to the Manchester nonprofit N.H. Council to End Homelessness.

To reduce those numbers, Hansel said, the state must improve its upstream housing services to keep people sheltered rather than waiting for them to become homeless before providing assistance.

“The majority of our focus has been on emergency sheltering,” he said. “That’s like just paying attention to the emergency room at a hospital. It’s very important, but there’s a lot that goes into providing housing security.”

Several measures aimed at making housing more financially accessible were among the Council on Housing Stability’s immediate policy recommendations. They included enacting legislation that would create new tax incentives for workforce-housing projects and allocating an additional $10 million in the state’s next biennial budget to subsidize the creation of affordable units.

The latter investment — in the Affordable Housing Trust Fund — would double the state’s commitment to that program over the next two years, according to Ben Frost, managing director for policy and public affairs at the independent state agency N.H. Housing.

Frost, whose organization administers the fund, said Sununu and incoming Senate President Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, have indicated support for the council’s recommendation.

“We’ve used it over the years … to create affordable housing all over the state,” he said. “It is the most flexible source of affordable housing financing we have.”

The Dec. 11 report, which the council sent to Sununu three days later, also recommended that some of its members meet with the governor’s administration about extending the federal evictions moratorium that expires Dec. 31 as well as tenants’ obligation to pay any back rent next month.

The council also asked DHHS to apply by May 2021 for inclusion in a federal program that relieves so-called “supportive housing” providers from paying for services offered to residents dealing with substance addiction, mental illness or behavioral issues.

Housing Action N.H. Director Elyssa Margolin said the relief, known as Home and Community Based Services, would pay social workers via federal Medicaid dollars, rather than private investments or state revenue. Many of the qualifying services are not directly health-related, she explained, but can instead include help applying for rent assistance and other resources that enable “folks to be successful in sustaining permanent housing.”

“That has been long-established as the correct approach, but we’ve never had a funding policy to make that work,” she said.

Margolin said the Medicaid program would also incentivize the creation of more supportive housing for at-risk residents by reducing the cost to providers.

In addition to its policy recommendations, the Council on Housing Stability also announced in its report that members will be split among four subcommittees to further hone the state’s approach to housing insecurity. The subcommittees include: planning and regulation; data analytics and integration; housing instability and homelessness system; and regional leadership and coordination.

Hansel said Monday afternoon that he had not yet been assigned to a subcommittee. His preference, he explained, would be the planning and regulation group, which will include public officials, private developers and service providers in coordinating housing opportunities and available resources.

Hansel also expressed interest in the regional leadership and coordination group, arguing that housing assessments too often focus on a broad region, like a county, that can mask communities’ specific needs.

“I plan to advocate for the state to look at a much more granular level,” he said. “Are we providing affordable housing for people in Troy and Marlow and Swanzey and Surry, rather than just taking it county by county? It’ll take a little more work, but it’s really, really important — especially for a place like Keene, where we’re providing the majority of homelessness services to the entire region.”Caleb Symons can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1420, or csymons@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @CalebSymonsKS.