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Vergennes resident to petition city’s pipeline support

VERGENNES — The Vergennes resident who last month asked the city council to reconsider its support for the proposed Vermont Gas Systems Addison County pipeline said he would start a petition that will seek to place the issue before Vergennes voters.
Aldermen, who discussed the issue with Jeff Margolis at their meeting Tuesday, said they expect the Vergennes Union High School board to propose a bond to fund improvements at the school, with a vote date probable for late November or early December. They recommended to Margolis that he time a petition effort to coincide with that vote.
Aldermen declined to themselves call for a citywide vote on the question of whether Vergennes should endorse the proposed natural gas pipeline, but said city officials would be happy to advise Margolis on the petition process and help him word a petition that would make for a clear ballot item.
“The wording of a referendum is critical,” said City Manager Mel Hawley. “It’s critical it be written neutral.”
Margolis — who in September told aldermen he opposes the pipeline on environmental grounds and favors alternative, renewable energy sources — agreed.
“That’s exactly what I want to do,” he said.
Margolis, who last month became the first resident to publicly oppose the pipeline before the council, and city officials agreed the wording of what comes before voters should not contain material about, for example, the potential environmental hazards of hydrofracturing, or fracking, in the pursuit of natural gas.
Margolis came before the council on Sept. 17 to oppose its endorsement of the pipeline. That support came in the form of a 2011 letter backing Vermont Gas’ application to the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) seeking to use a reserve fund to pay for its pipeline extension from Chittenden County. The PSB will ultimately rule on whether the extension will move forward.
The natural gas pipeline, according to Vermont Gas, could provide city residents as well as others in the county with a cheaper home heating alternative, and could save county businesses on energy costs.
Opponents like Margolis point to the environmental damage that fracking for natural gas causes, the effect on homeowners whose property the pipeline would bisect, and the long-range impact of relying on another fossil fuel rather than focusing on renewable alternative energy sources.
Margolis repeated on Tuesday that his central concern is that relying on natural gas is a short-term solution, and that doing so will discourage investment in alternatives that he sees as more beneficial in the long term, especially considering global warming and environmental damage associated with fossil fuels.
“I really can’t stress enough that this is an important decision for people who aren’t here yet,” he said.
Alderman Joe Klopfenstein said the latest research he had seen indicated that natural gas overall was not as environmentally problematic as oil, and given the cost savings to city residents promised by Vermont Gas he did not want the option taken off the table.
He also noted that those who opposed the pipeline would not have to heat with gas.
“People should have the choice to hook up to the gas or not,” Klopfenstein said.
Klopfenstein also said he had no problem with referendums, but did not think it was proper for the council to call for one on an action that it had itself taken.
Other aldermen, including Lowell Bertrand, said they thought residents should have access to a fuel source that has been promised to be less expensive.
Alderwoman Lynn Donnelly suggested the path all finally agreed to follow. A petition to put an item before voters requires 5 percent of the city electorate, or about 75 signatures. Given the lack of previous formal opposition before the council, Donnelly said getting signatures for the petition would be a good way for Margolis to measure sentiment.
“Maybe getting the 75 signatures would give you an idea if there is opposition,” she said.
Margolis agreed, and said he would work with officials to put a fair measure before voters.
“I would not try to politicize it any more than I am now,” he said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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