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VELCO gets slapped with class action lawsuit

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January 29, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Two local lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit against the Vermont Electric Power Co. (VELCO) on Friday, arguing among other things that the company had “misrepresented the scope of its condemnation authority” in acquiring land for transmission lines that will also carry fiber optic wires.

The four-page complaint, filed in Addison County Superior Court by attorneys Peter Langrock and James Dumont on behalf of as many as 1,000 Vermont landowners, asks that a judge:

• Prevent (VELCO) from further construction, installation and leasing of fiber optic lines along its electrical transmission rights-of-way across plaintiffs’ land and to remove any lines that are not directly needed for the transmission of electricity.

• Award compensatory damages to plaintiffs for the fair value of the use of their property.

• Award punitive damages based on the “deceptive behavior” of the defendant.

• Pay the plaintiffs’ legal costs and “other relief as the court deems fit.”

The lawsuit relates to VELCO’s “Northwest Reliability Project,” the company’s name for a massive project to string new electricity transmission lines parallel to existing lines from West Rutland to Burlington. The project bisects several Addison County towns, including Leicester, Salisbury, Middlebury, New Haven, Ferrisburgh and Vergennes. VELCO has spent the past several months erecting poles that are more than 80 feet tall and stringing them with 345kV power line.

At the same time, VELCO has agreed to string fiber optic cable along sections of the new transmission line infrastructure — an action that is at the heart of the class-action complaint.

The attorneys note that VELCO spent years acquiring rights of way from landowners in anticipation of the transmission line upgrade and, in some cases, went through condemnation proceedings to get the property for a project it argued was essential in upgrading Vermont’s electricity infrastructure.

But the attorneys argue that VELCO, in many cases, never informed landowners that their property would also serve as a conduit for fiber optic line — an add-on to the project that they believe will generate profits for VELCO while damaging the plaintiffs’ property values.

“(VELCO) leases or subleases usage of these fiber optic lines to others as a source of revenue,” the complaint reads. “In many cases, these fiber optic lines have been installed and leased to others without the knowledge of the landowners.”

The lawsuit alleges that VELCO misled some property owners to get the land it needed.

“In some cases, (VELCO) has made false statements and misleading representations to landowners inducing landowners to grant, and allowing (VELCO) to obtain, certain rights of way,” the complaint reads. “In these cases, defendants have misstated their intentions to plaintiff landowners regarding the purposes of the requested rights-of-way; misrepresented the scope of their condemnation authority; and failed to inform plaintiff landowners that the fiber optic lines were to be subleased for additional revenue, which would not benefit the landowners.”

VELCO officials strongly disputed elements within the lawsuit. They added the Vermont Supreme Court is currently reviewing a case in which the fiber optic issue is in play. That case involves condemnation proceedings that VELCO recently initiated to obtain an expanded easement on land owned by Harley Grice off Middlebury’s Halpin Road.

“Our initial reaction here is that the issue at stake is one that is under appeal to the Vermont Supreme Court, where we’re confident we’re going to win,” said VELCO spokesman Kerrick Johnson.

He added the fiber optic line in question will be owned by VELCO, and will not be used for profit.

“The benefits of having fiber optic strung are additional telecommunication options for Vermonters statewide,” Johnson said. “Any benefit accrues to Vermont ratepayers, because every penny that VELCO receives from any third party that might be providing services to Vermonters goes to reducing the transmission portion of the electric bill ultimately paid for by Vermont’s electricity customers.”

Langrock believes the plaintiffs — who specifically include residents Wendy Butler, P. Frank Winkler, Janet Beers Winkler and Janice Neilson, and others — have a very good case.

“We’ve been looking at this matter for well over a year,” Langrock said. “We decided it was important to bring this action at this time.”

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