MONKTON — They say the sequel is never as good as the original, but that’s for Monkton residents affected by the Addison-Rutland Natural Gas Project to decide after they meet with representatives from the Department of Public Service Thursday evening.
Thursday’s meeting will be held at the Monkton firehouse at 7 p.m. and will be hosted by legislators, including Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, and representatives from the Department of Public Service, including Commissioner Chris Recchia. DPS general counsel Louise Porter accompanied Recchia at the previous meeting.
The meeting is a followup to a similar conference in March. Monkton residents called for that meeting after Vermont Gas Systems sent several landowners along the pipeline route letters threatening to begin the process of eminent domain if the landowners did not agree to an easement with the company.
After the March meeting, Vermont Gas said it would send new letters to landowners, taking eminent domain off the table for the time being, and would also allow landowners to negotiate directly with Vermont Gas employees, rather than third-party land agents hired by the utility. The company also promised to work closely with the Department of Public Service to address residents’ concerns about safety and construction hours.
Monkton residents packed the town firehouse at the March meeting, and given the contentious nature of the project in the small Addison County community, there’s little doubt that Thursday’s meeting will attract a similar crowd.
Monkton resident Maren Vasatka, who is currently in the process of negotiating with Vermont Gas, helped organize the meeting. She said several items related to the pipeline project are on the agenda.
“We are hoping to address the drinking water contamination and get updates on the items the Department of Public Service and Sen. Bray were addressing regarding easements, safety and monitoring for the Certificate of Public Good,” Vasatka said.
In May, state officials determined a homeowner’s well in Monkton contained unsafe levels of pesticides used to prevent the decay of wood on nearby Vermont Electric Company utility poles. VELCO replaced the family’s well, and has said that the contamination has nothing to do with the Vermont Gas pipeline project, which will run in parts of the VELCO right-of-way in Monkton.
MORE LAND AGREEMENTS NEEDED
According to Monkton land records, Vermont Gas has negotiated 11 easements since the March 6 meeting, though the utility still has less than half of the easements it needs in the town.
About three dozen residents in Monkton own land through which the pipeline will run. To date, Vermont Gas has secured agreements with 14 landowners. The company has spent $257,928 on 13 easements and one purchase of 53 acres.
Though company spokesman Steve Wark has said the company believes it can secure all necessary land use agreements without resorting to eminent domain, this seems unlikely, as several landowners in Monkton have told the Independent they will not negotiate with Vermont Gas under any circumstances.
The company plans to begin construction this month on the 41-mile first phase of the pipeline, which will run through Monkton.
In an email after the first meeting to residents, state regulators and Vermont Gas officials, Bray expressed concern about the bargaining power of landowners compared to the clout of Vermont Gas.
“I am concerned about the balance of power in this relationship,” Bray wrote, noting that while the company has a cast of legal resources, landowners do not.
Bray also raised concern about Vermont Gas’ policy of forcing landowners to sign non-disclosure agreements, preventing them from discussing the details of negotiations with their neighbors.
“Vermont Gas knows the financial details of all the easements and options; landowners have virtually no knowledge of the marketplace, especially when all landowners sign non-disclosure agreements,” Bray wrote.
Vermont Gas has defended its use of non-disclosure agreements, citing the need to protect the confidentiality of landowners.