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Monkton residents decry Vermont Gas tactics after company threatens to use eminent domain

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Posted on February 20, 2014 |
By Zach Despart



VTG.jpg
VERMONT GAS SENT a letter to nine Monkton landowners threatening to begin the process of eminent domain if they did not come to an agreement with the utility for a right-of-way easement.

MONKTON — Vermont Gas Systems has said it will use eminent domain to obtain Monkton land it needs to build its pipeline through Addison County if town landowners do not agree to let the company cross their land.

At least some Monkton residents said they consider that tactic to be threatening.

Vermont Gas sent letters in January to nine Monkton homes stating that if the property owners would not consent to letting the company use their land for its proposed natural gas pipeline, the Canadian-owned utility would begin the process of eminent domain.

The letters sent to Monkton landowners bring into question the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed between Vermont Gas and the town last June, which states that the utility will only use eminent domain as a last resort.

Eminent domain is the process by which a government seizes private property for public use. Vermont Gas Systems has never acquired land through this process, and has said it does not want to use this approach.

“We’d like to revisit our proposal with you one more time before Vermont Gas must begin the legal process of eminent domain to acquire the easement rights necessary to construct the project,” stated a letter written to resident Maren Vasatka.

Vasatka said she was taken aback.  

“The threat of eminent domain is extremely serious to me, the longer I think about it the scarier it is,” Vasatka said.

Residents said they were shocked to receive the letters, and said that Vermont Gas has not adequately answered their questions about the project.

Selina Peyser is a 79-year-old widow who lives with her son, who is recovering from a climbing accident. Her property, which includes a 7,500-square-foot home, tennis court and 108 acres, is assessed by the town at $889,800.

In a Jan. 22 letter from Vermont Gas in which the utility discussed beginning the process of eminent domain, Vermont Gas offered Peyser $5,600 for 1.2 acres of her property, plus $1,400 for crop loss.

Peyser said the offer was woefully inadequate. She said the pipeline, if built, will greatly devalue her property.

“It will be virtually unsellable,” Peyser said. “The offer they made is ludicrous and offensive.”

Peyser, a German immigrant, previously lived with her husband, Frederick, on Long Island while he worked as an investment banker on Wall Street. The couple built the home in Monkton in 1975 with the intention of living the rest of their lives there. Frederick died in 2008.

“To me this is all terribly stressful. This is my land, my home,” Peyser said. “Just because I’ve lost my husband doesn’t mean I’m willing to give up on my home, by any stretch of the imagination.”

This isn’t the first time Peyser has tussled with a Vermont utility company. Back in the 1980s, she said the Peysers fought against a similar project by Champlain Pipeline Co. That project, a proposed 340-mile pipeline from the Canadian border through the state to Massachusetts, was eventually abandoned.

After Frederick’s death, Peyser continued the fight. She said she fears for her safety with a gas pipeline nearby, and recalled a deadly natural gas explosion near her home in Brussels in 1956. The proposed pipeline would run less than 300 feet from Peyser’s home.

Nancy Menard, who lives half a mile south of Peyser, also said she was concerned about the proximity of the pipeline to her home. The line would come within 75 feet of Menard’s log home on Hollow Road, well within the 300-foot potential impact radius — an area, as calculated by the federal Department of Transportation, that is at high risk for damage in the event of a gas explosion.

Menard said the eminent domain letter caught her off guard.

“I felt threatened and shocked by it,” Menard said. “It wasn’t my understanding of how it was going to work.”

Vermont Gas had previously made an offer to use one of Menard’s 32 acres for the pipeline. She declined to state the specifics of the offer, but said it was not acceptable to her. Menard added that she does not feel that Vermont Gas is living up to its MOU with Monkton.

“I don’t feel like it’s the last resort,” Menard said. “I don’t feel like the negotiations have been exhausted.”

Menard said that she is worried Vermont Gas will successfully seize her property using eminent domain.

“It’s not the land we’re losing. We’re losing the whole homestead,” Menard said. “We’re losing the value, and we’re losing the safety.”

Menard said she is not sure if she will hire an attorney if the eminent domain proceedings begin, as her financial resources are limited. She said she disagrees with the tactics that Vermont Gas is using to secure the necessary easements in order to begin construction.

“Any people should not be threatened, especially old people who just want to live out the rest of their lives,” Menard said. “We always wanted a log house, and we worked our whole married life, and to have this happen, I’m beside myself over the whole thing.”

Claire Broughton, who lives on Pond Road, said she ignored the letter sent to her because Vermont Gas has not answered questions that she has about how the pipeline will affect her property. Broughton said she does not know where her well will be relocated, or where an access road will be built on her property.

“I didn’t have any reaction to the letter because I haven’t gotten any answers about what I’ve wanted to know,” Broughton said.

Broughton said she was alarmed to hear of the arrests of two Vermont Gas subcontractors in Franklin County on suspicions of manufacturing methamphetamine. Court documents state that the workers may have been high while working on the pipeline between Georgia and St. Albans.

“That scares me,” Broughton said. “I don’t want those kind of people on my property.”

VERMONT GAS RESPONDS

Steve Wark, communications director for Vermont Gas, said the utility is living up to its Certificate of Public Good from the Public Service Board and its Memorandum of Understanding with Monkton.

“Vermont Gas continues to negotiate in good faith with all landowners who are willing to work together to find resolution,” Wark wrote in an email.

Speaking to the Monkton MOU, Wark said that criteria used to determine that negotiations have deteriorated to the “last resort” of eminent domain include, “that the owners have stated they will not enter into an agreement with Vermont Gas (and) that the owners have refused the highest offer or have made a counter offer that excessively exceeds the fair market value.”

Wark declined to say how many of the 36 landowners in Monkton have reached an agreement with Vermont Gas, citing ongoing negotiations. 

Explaining why Vermont Gas did not send a letter to all of the landowners with whom the utility has not yet reached a deal, Wark said that the company did not send letters “in cases where agreement on terms appears likely.”

Despite the inference that Vermont Gas sent letters only to landowners that the utility had little faith it could reach agreement with, Wark said that he believes eminent domain can be avoided entirely.

“I’m always hopeful that agreements can be reached, and both parties have to be flexible,” Wark said.

Peyser, as well as Monkton landowners Jane and Nathan Palmer, have said that they will not voluntarily cede their land to Vermont Gas under any circumstances.

Wark declined to say when Vermont Gas would begin the process of eminent domain, should it be necessary.

“The process will proceed on a case-by-case basis,” Wark said.

REsidents appeal to town

Monkton selectboard chair Steve Pilcher said that some of the three-dozen residents whose property would be used for the pipeline’s proposed route have reached out to the board about the negotiating tactics of Vermont Gas.

“Many of the Monkton landowners have told the selectboard and me personally that Vermont Gas has dropped the ball in terms of keeping them informed,” Pilcher said.

He added that not everyone understands the easement process.

 “Many people don’t want Vermont Gas on their land, period,” Pilcher said. “Their initial reaction is that they’ll try and keep Vermont Gas off their land and completely ignore the negotiation process.”

The town has brought in a lawyer to host an easement workshop, at which residents could ask questions about the process.

“It’s not an easy process and it’s scary because Vermont Gas has the large stick of eminent domain,” Pilcher said.

Pilcher said the selectboard, with the town attorney, has drafted a letter to Vermont Gas and the Public Service Board, stating the town is concerned the utility is not living up to the MOU because it is not using eminent domain only as a last resort. The board has not yet decided whether to send the letter, and will talk further at its next meeting, Pilcher said.

Pilcher said that if the selectboard does choose to act, he does not think it is likely the board will do more than write a letter.

“Our legal bills have been astronomical this past year,” Pilcher said.

Thea Gaudette, one of two Monkton delegates to the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, brought the concerns of town residents to the full commission at the Feb. 12 meeting.

Gaudette said the commission will decide if it has the power to enforce the MOU between Monkton and Vermont Gas.

“Because the Public Service Board included in its decision these MOUs, our feeling is that if it’s part of the Certificate of Public Good, there has to be a way to go back and say, ‘Wait a minute, we’re not following this,’” Gaudette said.

On Town Meeting Day next month, a wider sampling of Monkton sentiment will be known, beyond those who have received the eminent domain letters and those who have negotiated with Vermont Gas. At that meeting all town residents will have the chance to vote on an article asking the town to denounce the portion of the Addison Natural Gas Project that would run through Monkton.

Zach Despart may be reached at zachd@addisonindependent.com.

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