MONKTON — Last August was the first time Beverly Latreille, 82, of Rotax Road in Monkton heard of it. The man who came to her door was working for an engineering firm that had been hired by Vermont Gas Systems, the South Burlington natural gas company now planning to build a 42-mile, $72 million pipeline extension through Addison County to Ticonderoga, N.Y.
“He stopped here and told me about it,” said Latreille. “He said there would be people (surveying), and it would be following the VELCO line, and would it be OK if they parked on our property or walked on it, because they wanted to get off the highway.
“The hayfield was still standing hay,” she recalled, saying she offered to sign what she thought was an agreement to let crews park on her lawn.
“I didn’t care if they parked on my lawn to get farther off the highway,” Latreille said. “And we signed the agreement, not realizing.”
What she and her family didn’t realize was that the agreement allowed workers to be on her property for additional reasons — including surveying their land.
When VGS first approached Monkton about running miles of 12-inch pipeline through town, the selectboard was told the pipe would run along the existing VELCO utilities corridor, which stretches from Rutland to South Burlington and has buffers in case of accidents and setbacks from homes and wells.
Just before VGS filed for a state permit on Dec. 20, 2012, though, the company altered the pipeline’s path through Monkton. The altered route would have sent the pipeline down the public right-of-way on the town’s busiest roads. The last-minute change upset residents and left some feeling duped.
Raymond Latreille, Beverly’s son and a Rotax Road resident himself, said that when VGS changed the route his family revoked the signature on the agreement.
Monkton residents and town officials inundated VGS with requests to revert the pipeline back to the VELCO corridor.
Though VGS did not alter the route in its initial Dec. 20 filing for a Certificate of Public Good, the company has since announced its intention to revert back to VELCO. It plans to file an amended route with the Public Service Board (PSB) on Feb. 28 and posted maps online that indicate the pipeline will primarily run down the initially planned utilities route — except, the company says, for a few minor deviations.
For example, the pipeline right-angles off the VELCO corridor at Rotax Road across a swath of property owned by the Latreilles, and property owned by Nathan and Jane Palmer.
“They rerouted it onto our property,” Raymond Latreille said. “And no one has notified us about that.”
The Palmers and Latreilles both say they weren’t part of the town’s discussion on the pipeline to begin with — neither family was particularly worried about it going down VELCO.
VGS says the deviation was necessary.
“In the area of Rotax Road, there are some VELCO system and corridor constraints that did not make location of the pipeline optimal, thus the departure from the corridor,” said VGS Director of Communications Steve Wark.
But after VGS senior management pledged to improve communications with local residents, the Latreilles and the Palmers are wondering why they had to hear about it through the grapevine.
“If it hadn’t been for the neighbor we wouldn’t have known anything about it,” Raymond Latreille said. “Because we were still under the impression it was going under the power lines, until the neighbor notified us that, gee, they were talking about running by the wetlands now, so then I went to one of the meetings in town and found out, gee, the new route now is down through ours.”
The Palmers learned the news in a similar manner.
“A neighbor stopped over and said, you might want to pay attention, because they’re putting it back on the VELCO line but they want to go through your land,” recalled Jane Palmer. “And then we got a phone call from a guy who works for a guy who works for a guy who works for Vermont Gas and he said, ‘Can we come and do surveys?’ And we said no.”
That was the last the Palmers say they heard of it for a while. Then, a neighbor brought by a rough map.
“We could tell it was coming right through our land,” Palmer said.
Worried, the Palmers decided to go the VGS’ pre-hearing conference in Montpelier on Jan. 30 to learn more.
“And that’s when we heard that Vermont Gas attorney saying, giving the impression, and saying specifically that they had the route pinned down and all the landowners, and that they might have one condemnation. Playing it down,” Palmer said.
ROOTS IN THE LAND
On an icy morning in early February, Beverly Latreille stood at her kitchen window and pointed out across the hayfield, tracing with her outstretched hand the path the pipeline would likely take through her property.
Latreille knows the land intimately — she can tell stories of her childhood wonder at stones that rose through the earth in the spring, pushed up by the frost, and she remembers when the cows were sent out to pasture in a meadow that’s now turned to wetlands.
“We worked hard to keep the property,” Latreille said. “We were low-income and we had nine kids we raised on that farm. And the kids all had jobs and things, they all had to work! When they got old enough they each had their own job. … I canned. I worked outdoors. Milked cows. Drove tractors. You know, we worked hard for what we had.”
Latreille says that March 1 will mark the 54th year she’s lived there, but in fact, she’s lived nearly eight decades in the swath of hills and fields to the west of Rotax Road. She grew up next door, and though she and her late husband worked various parcels of land before settling back there, she has loved and worked that parcel of land most of her life.
“All in all, the only time I’ve ever left this little area was when I was in high school,” Latreille said (though she has traveled elsewhere). “And my husband and I, when he was working as a hired hand to different farmers around, we were still only a mile or so away … It’s roots, you know.”
WAITING TO HEAR FROM VGS
The bubble of opposition to the pipeline that culminated in a boisterous January meeting with VGS may well have popped for many Monkton residents after VGS’ return to the VELCO corridor. But on Rotax Road, the Latreilles and the Palmers are still reeling from the surprise. They say they still don’t understand why their property was necessary for the route, or why they were never notified of the change. Neither family has received a monetary offer from the company.
“I don’t feel it’s for us to chase them,” said Raymond Latreille, “They want to come across our property, they need to be coming to us.”
The Latreilles say they are still waiting for a phone call, and that they are open to having a conversation. The problem is that no one has called.
Down the road, the Palmers have since contacted VGS representatives and had conversations with them. But they were not impressed by what they heard.
“For every little bit they’re offering you, still, it’s ridiculous,” said Nathan Palmer. “The burden on the landowner — it doesn’t matter whether you’re on the other end of town with 4,000 acres or whether you’re here with a couple of acres or whether you’re through Hinesburg. It’s the same offer. A few thousand dollars. It’s absolutely ridiculous.”
“Vermont Gas is currently negotiating with landowners for the purchase of an easement for the pipeline,” said Wark. “We are still in the early stages of negotiations and written offers will be provided to landowners as they approach a more final stage of discussions. Compensation for the easements are based on valuation of the land and the amount of land impacted.”
But with the PSB filing expected this week, the Palmers are worried that their land will be seized.
“We were hearing eminent domain right away from everyone else,” Nathan Palmer said.
The maps that VGS has posted on its website are still technically unofficial — they could be subject to changes until an official version is filed with the PSB on Feb. 28, according to company spokesman Wark.
“Vermont Gas continues to work on route refinements and will submit the final filing on February 28, 2013,” he said late last week. “This filing will largely reflect what is currently posted.”
Nathan and Jane Palmer are the first to admit that they are “defensive” of their farm. They bought it 17 years ago and moved from a nearly complete house on the other side of Monkton to Rotax Road.
“We bought it because we saw it go for sale and we didn’t want to see it get chopped up,” said Jane. “So that’s what we’ve been doing, fixing things up and getting farmers here.”
The Palmers have spent nearly two decades working to revitalize it. For the last five years, the Palmers have been inviting young people considering becoming farmers to come experiment on their land at no charge.
“They come in and do vegetable gardens as an incubator type thing so that people can use the land and see if they want to be farmers or grow their business,” Jane Palmer said.
Forty acres of the Palmer property is federally protected wetlands. Nathan Palmer estimates that the USDA and the Natural Resources Conservation Service have invested $60,000 to $70,000 in the restoration of the wetlands. The pipeline can’t cut through it — which means that the company would be obligated to run the line closer to the Palmers’ home.
“It’s crazy,” Nathan Palmer said. “(The wetlands are) off limits, you know? Now we have this pipeline, so you put it on our lawn? That’s not a good feeling.”
“While Vermont Gas is confident that we can construct and operate a pipeline in the proximity of buildings, we tried to honor the spirit of the community input and choose a route that would keep the pipeline further away from homes, to the extent possible,” Wark said.
The Palmers have a slightly different interpretation.
“Our two-acre improved vegetable garden that’s been worked on the last six or seven years is right in the line where the pipeline’s going through,” Nathan Palmer said. “And our horse pasture. And our spring is way out on the mountain so (the gas pipeline would go) across our water line and, you know, through our little apple orchard that we planted because I’ve always been playing around with alternative energy projects and I put up some cider apples up there that I could make a little alcohol for the tractor out of, and to keep the dust down from the road and give us a little privacy
“All these little things that we try to do and we try to improve. And now all of a sudden somebody wants to come through and put a four-and-a-half-foot ditch four foot wide through the middle of it and run a pipe through.”
“We’re really kind of defensive of this property,” Jane Palmer added. “Because it isn’t just ours, it’s an important part of the ecosystem. I mean it’s an aquifer from this ridge to that ridge, we’ve been told; it feeds directly into Lewis Creek and it’s the runoff from Cedar Pond (Monkton Pond) … We really want to protect it.”
As the Feb. 28 filing approaches, the Palmers and Latreilles are still waiting for a final word.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes, some of them for the good and some for the bad,” said Latreille. “But I never dreamed that this would interfere with my life. And it is interfering… you know, it’s on my mind when I go to bed at night, and I get up in the middle of the night, and when I wake up in the morning its still there.”
“I don’t like to have someone come in and take advantage of me,” she added. “I never played roll over dead, and I’m not about to now.”