Opion: Beware of Vermont Gas MOUs

Letter to the Editor:
Vermont Gas Systems has an unlimited budget to spend on lawyers and consultants, newspaper ads and radio ads. Not surprisingly, in Phase 1 of the pipeline project, the selectboard of Monkton felt that it saw the writing on the wall and it raised the white flag. The town entered into an agreement with VGS called a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). That MOU was submitted to the Public Service Board in support of the pipeline. That MOU threw my family under the wheels of the bus. Eventually, with the help of a lawyer, we pointed out to the PSB that the MOU was not only unfair but also contrary to Vermont statutes and the Vermont Constitution.
Other towns now lie in the pipeline’s path. I write to warn Addison County residents, and their selectboards, not to let VGS intimidate other town leaders into repeating the mistake made in Monkton.
First, MOUs such as this are unfair and dangerous. The MOU acknowledged that 300 feet is the required safety setback distance, but agreed to a pipeline location running 120 feet from our house and within 75 feet of another residence. The town’s reasoning was that this route minimized the number of homes within 300 feet. Of course, if there were no pipeline in Monkton, none of us would have this problem. If the company can’t site the pipeline except by running it close to people’s homes, they need to find another town to run it through.
But was the selectboard elected to make decisions about which home values and which family’s way of life would be destroyed and which ones would be saved? As we pointed out to the PSB, under Vermont law selectboards have only those powers granted to them by statute, and this kind of decision is far outside that authority. Vermont has a detailed planning and zoning process. That process was adopted by the Vermont Legislature to make decisions about where to locate utilities in each town, subject to review by the Public Service Board. If the selectboard in your town wants to have a say on utility line location, tell them to go to the planning commission and make a recommendation. If the planning commission agrees, they can subject it to public hearings, and then present it to the selectboard for adoption, subject to petition by the public for public vote on adoption or rejection. The alternative, followed in Monkton, was that the selectboard met and decided this for itself, without use of the statutory planning and public hearing process and without any opportunity for public vote. The result was the MOU, which decided who the winners and who the losers would be in Monkton.
The Supreme Court of Vermont has already held that actions similar to this are unconstitutional. The “common benefits” clause of our Constitution was the foundation for the court’s ruling that benefits of marriage cannot be restricted to heterosexual couples. These benefits must be shared by all. The court has explained that the same clause prohibits selectboards from selecting one set of landowners as winners and another set as losers in land use decisions. Hopefully, my family won’t need to resort to the courts to obtain redress for violation of that right by the town of Monkton because the PSB may yet do the right thing. And hopefully, no town in Addison County will follow Monkton’s example.
Nathan Palmer, Monkton

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