MONKTON — In a June 19 meeting with legislators and the head of the Department of Public Service, dozens of Monkton residents said they’re still nowhere close to signing easements with Vermont Gas Systems that will allow the company to lay a new pipeline across the town.
In the three months since Monkton residents held a similar meeting with state regulators to address Vermont Gas’ negotiating tactics with regard to its Addison-Rutland Natural Gas Project, not a single landowner at this past Thursday evening’s meeting at the Monkton firehouse said that talks with company representatives had improved.
Instead, landowners said Vermont Gas fails to respond to their questions in a timely manner, does not address concerns they harbor, is not offering fair compensation for their land and is secretive about its business practices.
“Nothing has changed,” landowner Selina Peyser said.
The meeting was chaired by Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, and Department of Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia. In addition two dozen landowners, Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, and Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, also attended.
One of the key concerns of landowners in March was that the land agents representing Vermont Gas were not employees of the company. Rather, Vermont Gas hired a third-party firm, Clough Harbor Associates of Albany, N.Y., to handle the negotiations.
Vermont Gas agreed to allow landowners to speak directly with its own employees, but landowners said these employees lack the authority to amend easement drafts, and instead must seek approval from supervisors.
“It was a lot of the same,” landowner Maren Vasatka said. “It was not really what we were asking for, when we were asking for answers.”
Rep. Sharpe questioned why the Public Service Department had not taken up his suggestion to provide independent mediators to help landowners navigate the complex negotiations.
“Truthfully, it was considered for a little bit, and we just couldn’t figure out how to implement that,” Recchia said. “I apologize, but it just got overwhelmed with other stuff.”
Sharpe pressed Recchia to again look into the idea.
“I understand it’s a new procedure, but we have citizens that are feeling put-upon, and I think it’s appropriate that there be an independent negotiator involved,” Sharpe said.
Vasatka said landowners don’t need mediators, but legal representation.
“A mediator can’t give you legal advice,” Vasatka said. “We have people that don’t understand easements. (The easements) are massive, they’ve very difficult to deal with, (Vermont Gas) doesn’t give direct answers and the stuff that goes back and forth is overwhelming.”
Vasatka, who earns her living as a Realtor, said that easement negotiations are more complex than standard real estate transactions.
Melanie Peyser, the daughter of Monkton landowner Selina Peyser, said she thinks it is unfair that Vermont Gas’ legal costs are built into the cost of the project, which is borne by ratepayers, while landowners are left to pay their legal fees out of pocket.
“These negotiations are about things like route planning, safety issues and construction — those development costs are being covered by VGS,” Peyser said. “I don’t see any reason why they cannot be covered on the other side.”
Peyser said that because many residents don’t have the technical or legal knowledge to represent their own interests in easement negotiations, they may unwittingly sign deals they will regret.
“People simply don’t have the expertise to address these issues, and unfortunately the expertise that has been provided by VGS is simply not accurate,” Peyser said. “You do not know that the information that is being presented to you, as though it were objective … is inaccurate.”
Peyser said either the state or Vermont Gas should cover the costs of an independent survey and independent appraisal for each property, and also pay for a lawyer to help landowners negotiate and easement.
Vasatka stressed that the landowners in Monkton are not asking for taxpayer money to fight the pipeline.
“We’re not asking for a defense fund,” Vasatka said. “We’re asking for legal assistance to help negotiate an easement, not to fight an eminent domain battle.”
But not all requests that the landowners had would cost Vermont Gas or the state money. Greg Peyser, the son of Selina Peyser, said he just wants Vermont Gas to indicate where the changes are when the company sends landowners new easement drafts by using boldface type or other means.
“Every time you get an easement, it’s a brand new sheet of paper and you have no idea what they have or haven’t changed, and it’s incumbent upon you to go through it,” Peyser said.
Another common refrain from landowners is that the easements they are being presented with are so vague as to allow the company to move the pipeline or work stations as they see fit. Michael Alderman said he has been asking Vermont Gas where they plan to site a work station on his property, but has not received an answer.
“If you’re building a house, you know where it’s going to be,” Alderman said. “If you’re building a work station, you should know where it’s gonna be.”
Landowners and legislators alike also objected to Vermont Gas’ practice of making landowners sign non-disclosure agreements, or NDAs, when signing an easement, that prevent landowners from sharing details of the negotiations with their neighbors.
NDAs don’t make easements or land purchases secret; those things are part of the public record. But NDAs do conceal any damages the company may have paid landowners in addition to the easement price.
Landowners said not knowing the full price that their neighbors are being paid puts them at a competitive disadvantage, and allows Vermont Gas to keep the market artificially low.
“If somebody’s giving a $2,600 easement that’s reported with the town, and they’re getting a $5,000 damages payment, that easement is actually selling for $7,600,” Vasatka said. “But they’re not reporting all of the payments, which allows them to create their own market.”
Monkton residents asked Vermont Gas to stop asking for NDAs at the meeting in March, but the company refused, saying it wanted to protect the privacy of itself and landowners.
Bray said that he believes the NDAs have created a lopsided relationship between Vermont Gas and landowners.
“It is a very uneven playing field,” Bray said. “One side has all the knowledge of the marketplace, because they’ve actually defined the market, and the other side has no knowledge of the marketplace and limited resources.”
Sharpe said he spoke with Vermont Gas President Don Gilbert about the NDAs. Sharpe said Gilbert expressed concern that if landowners knew how much their neighbors were being paid, they would ask for more money, thus inflating costs. Sharpe he said he was not persuaded by Gilbert’s argument.
“I still feel pretty strongly that there is no good reason for a non-disclosure agreement,” Sharpe said. “In my conversations, it seemed obvious to me the reason they were insisting on them was to keep their costs down.”
While Vermont Gas has said it plans to begin construction on the pipeline this month, it has only secured 14 of about three dozen easements needed in Monkton. Company spokesman Steve Wark did not respond to requests to disclose how many of the 222 landowners along the entire Phase I pipeline route the company has secured land use agreements with.