MONKTON — Vermont Gas Systems has purchased 53 acres of land in Monkton, but will neither disclose the reason for the purchase nor say what the land will be used for.
The $185,000 the South Burlington company spent to purchase the Rotax Road parcel from George Bailey on Feb. 12 will ultimately be paid by ratepayers. Vermont Gas’ rates are regulated by the state Public Service Board.
In addition to this land purchase, Vermont Gas has bought easements to lay a natural gas pipeline across at least a quarter of the Monkton properties slated to host Phase I of the Addison-Rutland Natural Gas Project.
Vermont Gas spokesman Steve Wark declined to speak about any land transactions between the company and Addison County residents, including the purchase of Bailey’s 53 acres.
“All of our agreements are confidential,” he said.
While Wark was mum on the South Burlington company’s plans for the land, the Department of Public Service said the company plans to build a distribution station on the property.
“Vermont Gas has plans to in the future construct a gate station on that property,” DPS counsel Louise Porter said. “
Porter said she did not have an answer as to why Vermont Gas would not disclose that information to the public.
“I have no idea why (Wark) responded that way,” Porter said.
Monkton selectboard chair Stephen Pilcher said Vermont Gas has also indicated to town officials it plans to build a distribution station on the property.
“It certainly is my understanding that Vermont Gas plans to use that property for a distribution station,” Pilcher said.
A June 2013 memorandum of understanding signed between Vermont Gas and the town of Monkton states that the utility will “use reasonable best efforts” to build a gate station and distribution network to provide natural gas to Monkton homes and businesses within two years of the completion of the pipeline.
Bailey said Vermont Gas initially proposed to run a 50-foot-wide right of way through his property, which he rejected.
“The original offer was far too low, and the line would have run through the good parts of the property,” Bailey said.
Bailey said he told Vermont Gas it would have to buy his land in order to use it, which the company did.
MORE EASEMENTS NEEDED
Vermont Gas is in the process of securing land use agreements to build Phase I of its Addison-Rutland Natural Gas Project, a pipeline from Colchester to Middlebury. The Public Service Board approved Phase I of the project in December 2013.
Vermont Gas has signed easements with at least nine Monkton residents to build a natural gas pipeline across their land, but still needs to reach agreements with dozens of other residents.
According to Monkton land records, nine homeowners have signed easement agreements with Vermont Gas, dating back to May 2013. That number does not include the Feb. 12 purchase of 53 acres from George Bailey, nor does it include options for easements, which do not become property transfers unless Vermont Gas chooses to exercise them.
In total, Vermont Gas has spent $56,228 on easements in Monkton, an average of $6,248 per property owner, according to the land transfer records. Combined with the $185,000 the company spent on the Bailey property, Vermont Gas has thus far spent $244,228 in Monkton.
Wark has declined to say how many landowners the company is negotiating with, but a map of the proposed route shows the pipeline running through 36 properties in Monkton, plus more in New Haven, Vergennes and Middlebury.
Wark said he could not confirm the number of agreements the company has made with landowners, citing confidentiality concerns. He did say that the company was making progress toward securing the land it needs to build the pipeline.
“Overall, we’re continuing to close agreements,” Wark said. “We’ve got 60 to 70 percent for Phase I.”
Wark said Vermont Gas must be fair to both landowners and ratepayers, who ultimately foot the bill for what the utility expends on land for the pipeline.
“There are two things we can’t do — we can’t write blank checks and we can’t let this continue without any sort of conclusion,” Wark said.
Wark said that while the company would not discuss at this time why it bought 53 acres of land in Monkton, that could change in the future.
“As time progresses, we’ll be able to share more about the particulars of land acquisition,” he said. “We want to be very respectful of landowners who have made agreements.”
Wark said in the best-case scenario for Vermont Gas, the pipeline will be completed this year. Presently, the company is working to secure the remaining land use agreements and permits.
“We will be breaking ground in 2014,” Wark said.
Easements sold to Vermont Gas in Monkton
May 8, 2013, Philip Stein, 148 Davis Road, $2,600.
Jan. 7, Marc and Gretchen Beaupre, 726 Monkton Road, $2,700.
March 11, Henry Boisse, 2578 Monkton Road, $3,000.
March 11, David Williams and Joseph Boisse, 692 Nichols Road, $21,228.
March 11, Roger and Alyson Cota, 2242 Monkton Road, $3,710.
March 27, Mark and Michelle Burritt, 693 Pond Road, $2,670.
March 31, Vicki Cousino, 171 Hollow Road, $7,500.
March 31, Lawrence and Sandra Grace, 1132 Old State Road, $9,820.
April 1, William and Helena Nicolay, 585 Pond Road, $3,000.
Monkton land sold to Vermont Gas
Feb. 12, George Bailey, 53 acres off Rotax Road, $185,000.
Source: Town land records
RESIDENTS OFFER DIFFERENT VIEWS
Some town residents who have negotiated land agreements with Vermont Gas said that the process was easy to navigate.
Bailey said he had no complaints about his dealings with the utility company.
“I felt they treated me fairly,” he said.
Joseph Boisse, who negotiated an easement for $21,228 to allow Vermont Gas to use part of his 115-acre property, said he had no complaints about negotiating with the company.
“It was extremely easy as far as my spouse and I were concerned,” Boisse said. “We’re happy with the results.”
Boisse said he and his wife negotiated with Vermont Gas for three months before reaching an agreement March 11.
“When we had questions and called the contact person, she always called back quite quickly,” Boisse said.
Michelle Burritt, who with her husband, Mark, negotiated an easement for $2,670 on their 13-acre property, said the couple did not have any difficulty with Vermont Gas.
“It was very simple,” she said.
However, other Monkton residents shared vastly different experiences negotiating with Vermont Gas.
Nancy Menard, who owns 32 acres in Monkton, said that Vermont Gas has not made an offer she deems acceptable. She asked for a new right-of-way agent, but said negotiations have not improved.
“Now, I’ve gotten the same low-ball offer four times,” Menard said.
Menard said that Vermont Gas initially offered her $5,000 for her land. She said the most recent offers have been $20,000, but that she feels that amount is still too low.
“I believe some people have been offered more than $20,000,” Menard said. “They seem to be targeting and taking advantage of us.”
Menard said she believes she and her husband should be compensated not only for the market value of the land Vermont Gas would use for the pipeline, but also for the subsequent depreciation of their home. The pipeline would run just 60 feet from Menard’s log home.
“It’s a major depreciation of the value of our house,” Menard said. “It’s mind blowing that this could even be allowed.”
Menard said she was not sure what figure would be acceptable.
“You can’t even put a value on what they are doing for the home, taking the safety from someone who’s retired,” Menard said. “If we have to settle, it should be on the high end.”
Menard said she and her husband cannot afford a lawyer to help them with the negotiations.
Maren Vasatka said that negotiations have long been stalled between her and Vermont Gas. She said that the most recent draft easement agreement she and her husband received was riddled with mistakes.
“I was extremely shocked they would send me an agreement that was so poorly written,” Vasatka said. “We’ve gotten nowhere. We’ve gone backwards.”
Vasatka said she is not sure if she will ever reach an agreement with Vermont Gas. She said her main concern is protecting her family against damage to her property due to pipeline construction.
“I want an agreement that says who’s responsible for what, and Vermont Gas is incapable of that agreement,” Vasatka said.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST?
An already-controversial vote by the Addison County Regional Planning Commission regarding Phase II of the Addison-Rutland Natural Gas project is under further scrutiny after some delegates learned that a Monkton delegate who voted to endorse the pipeline had earlier applied for a job at Vermont Gas.
The seven-member ACRPC executive board, as well as the commission’s executive director, knew that Thea Gaudette had applied for a position at Vermont Gas, but the whole 41-member body did not.
Gaudette said she completed an online application March 27 for an accounts payable position at Vermont Gas. Gaudette said she simultaneously notified Pilcher, the Monkton selectman, and Adam Lougee, the ACRPC’s executive director, that because of her application, she would recuse herself from discussions related to the pipeline. She said she also notified the ACRPC’s executive board before she submitted her application.
“Because of the nature of the sensitivity of the pipeline issue, I wanted to avoid the appearance of impropriety,” Gaudette said. “As soon as I submitted the application, I notified people so there would be no appearance of impropriety.”
Gaudette said she received a response from Vermont Gas on March 28 that indicated that there was not a position available at the company. Gaudette said that she did not interview for the position or otherwise discuss employment with Vermont Gas officials.
“I was not considered for it at all,” Gaudette said.
Because she was no longer applying to work for Vermont Gas, Gaudette said she did not believe she needed to remove herself from future discussions and votes related to the pipeline.
“I notified Stephen Pilcher and Adam Lougee that I did not feel there was any appearance of impropriety,” Gaudette said. “I un-recused myself.”
Gaudette said she did not believe her mere interest in working for Vermont Gas created a conflict of interest.
“Bear in mind that I voted ‘yes’ on Phase I, and that was long before I discovered there was a position available,” Gaudette said.
On April 9, Gaudette voted with the majority of the ACRPC board in deciding that the Phase II pipeline could pass muster with Addison County’s regional plan. Some in Monkton thought that was peculiar, given that residents on Town Meeting Day voted nearly unanimously to denounce Phase I of the pipeline running through the town.
Gaudette read that vote narrowly, and said she did not believe it expressed that voters opposed Phase II of the pipeline, which would not run through Monkton.
“I took that vote to be what it said; it was symbolic and about Phase I,” Gaudette said. “Phase II stands on its own — the strongest rider is the economic advantages that it brings.”
Gaudette added that she did not believe the Town Meeting Day vote was representative of the entire town, because she believed that many residents who support the pipeline were not present at the Monkton Central School that morning.
“I don’t know if voters want Phase II,” Gaudette said. “I have several neighbors who are in favor of this project.”
The ACRPC voted 15-11 to endorse Phase II of the project. The vote raised questions after John Meakin, the delegate from the Otter Creek Audubon Society, voted with the majority on the pipeline, even though the organization he represented opposed it. After the vote, Meakin resigned from the ACRPC.