SOUTH BURLINGTON — A handful of Addison County residents staged a protest at the headquarters of Vermont Gas Systems this past Wednesday afternoon, an act they said was in retaliation for trespassing by the company on their land. South Burlington police arrested one protester, Jane Palmer of Monkton, after she refused to leave the premises at the close of business.
Palmer, along with fellow protesters Maren Vasatka and Claire Broughton, are currently in the process of negotiating an easement with Vermont Gas so the company may use their properties for Phase 1 of the Addison-Rutland Natural Gas Project, which the company began construction on last month.
The other protesters were Mary Martin of Cornwall and Rebecca Foster of Charlotte.
The group arrived at the Vermont Gas headquarters around 3:40 p.m. and camped out in the reception area. Prepared for a long protest, Palmer brought knitting materials.
The protesters had three demands — that the company admit publicly that it has trespassed on residents’ land, that it stop “over-prosecuting” peaceful protesters and that it stop using the threat of eminent domain as a tactic in easement negotiations.
Vasatka told the Independent that the group first asked to speak with Vermont Gas President Don Gilbert, and were told by a receptionist that he was not available. Protesters then asked to meet with company Vice President Eileen Simollardes.
Vasatka said Simollardes came down to the reception area a few minutes later and asked the protesters to go outside if they wished to continue protesting, adding that if they wished to meet with her, they should have scheduled a meeting.
Vasatka said Vermont Gas has in the past refused to meet with more than one landowner at a time.
“Every time we ask to meet with more than one person, they won’t do it,” Vasatka said.
At 5 p.m., when the building closed for the day, Vermont Gas Director of Rates and Regulatory Affairs Tom Murray asked the protesters, as well as reporters who had arrived to cover the event, to leave the building.
Vermont Public Radio reported that Murray pushed Seven Days reporter Kathryn Flagg toward the door when she did not immediately leave. Vasatka also witnessed the incident, and said that Flagg was among journalists from WCAX, VPR and the Burlington Free Press that were inside the building at that time.
Vasatka said Flagg, a former Addison Independent reporter, was the only woman in the group of journalists, and the only person Murray touched.
All of the journalists and all but one protester, Palmer, left the building. South Burlington police issued her a citation for trespassing around 5:15 p.m. She is due to appear in Chittenden County Superior Court to answer to the charge.
Palmer, who spoke with the Independent before her arrest, said she and her husband, Nathan, signed a right of entry agreement with Vermont Gas to allow the company to take measurements on their farm on Rotax Road in Monkton.
“They wanted a one-year agreement, but we gave them one month,” Palmer said.
Two days after the right of entry agreement expired, Palmer said Vermont Gas employees were on their land. The couple called the company, and a representative apologized for violating the agreement.
Vasatka said someone from Vermont Gas trespassed on her neighbor’s property in order to photograph her home in January. Previously, Vasatka had asked Vermont Gas not to come on her property, and she said her neighbor did not give the company permission to come on his property, either.
Vasatka and Palmer said they believe it is hypocritical that Vermont Gas is pressing trespassing charges against protesters who demonstrated at the company’s South Burlington headquarters in May.
Palmer said that while the Vermont Gas building is on private property, she does not believe the protesters who climbed to the roof and unfurled a banner committed a crime.
“It’s a public building,” Palmer said.
Palmer said that she believes that by pursuing trespassing charges against protesters who demonstrated on company property in May, Vermont Gas is limiting citizens’ right to protest the project.
“I want to bring light to the fact that Vermont Gas is trying to discriminate against peaceful protests,” Palmer said.
She added that she does not believe protesters, at that May demonstration, assaulted a Vermont Gas employee, as the company has alleged.
“They’re trumping up charges that are false,” Palmer said.
PIPELINE COST SURGES
Unrelated to the protest, Vermont Gas on Wednesday also announced that the cost of building Phase 1 of the pipeline, which will run from Colchester to Middlebury, will be much higher than expected.
While originally budgeted for $86 million, Vermont Gas now says that the project will cost about $121.6 million, an increase of 40 percent. The company attributed this jump to increasing costs of construction materials, route changes at the request of landowners and more stringent oversight of the project.
The company also said it has made route and construction changes to comply with the Certificate of Public Good issued by the Public Service Board last December. These changes include more expensive construction procedures, such as horizontal drilling, in some places along the route.
The total cost of the project will be borne by Vermont Gas ratepayers.