Citizens in three county town denounce gas pipeline proposal

MONKTON — Residents in three Addison County towns this week passed articles condemning the Vermont Gas Systems pipeline that is proposed to run through the county.
Voters in Monkton, Cornwall and Shoreham voiced their disapproval with Vermont Gas, the state’s only gas utility, by overwhelmingly approving the measures at their respective town meetings.
At their town meeting Tuesday, Monkton residents voted to denounce the section of the pipeline that has been approved to run through the town. In a near-unanimous voice vote, residents approved Article 13 of the Town Meeting warning, which read, “Shall the voters of Monkton denounce the Addison Natural Gas Project through Monkton?”
The night before, residents in Cornwall voted 126-16 against the project, while their neighbors in Shoreham voted 66-38 against the pipeline.  The votes are largely symbolic, but they put towns on the record as opposing the pipeline.
“This allows the selectboard to take the gloves off,” Ben Marks, the lawyer working with the Cornwall selectboard in its dealings with Vermont Gas, told the 150 people at his town meeting.
Monkton lies within Phase I of the Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project, which was granted a Certificate of Public Good by the Public Service Board in December. Cornwall and Shoreham would be affected by Phase II of the project, which the PSB has yet to rule on.  Phase II would run from Middlebury through Cornwall and Shoreham to the International Paper plant in Ticonderoga, N.Y.
Also on Monday evening, the Energy Committee of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, which represents each of the county’s 23 towns, voted 4-1 against Phase II of the project. The commission previously endorsed Phase I.
In Monkton, half an hour of debate preceded the vote. A slew of residents spoke in favor of denouncing the pipeline. None rose in opposition to the article.
There was a common theme in Monkton: that the pipeline would not benefit the town, that Vermont Gas was bullying residents, and that the company has not been responsive to residents’ questions about the pipeline.
Eugenie Doyle, who does not live along the proposed pipeline route, urged residents to vote to denounce the pipeline as a show of solidarity with the landowners directly affected by the project.
“It’s the least we can do,” she said.
Renee McGuiness, who wrote the article on the warning, urged town residents to vote in favor of it.
“The way Vermont Gas has dealt with Monkton throughout this process has really been abominable,” McGuiness said. “It concerns me because if Vermont Gas has behaved this way, up until this point, how are they going to behave when they’re actually constructing the project?”
McGuiness said the town would not benefit much from the pipeline, and referred to estimates made by Cornwall about how much that town would benefit from the project.
“Under Act 60, 80 percent of the tax revenues from the pipeline would go to the state education fund,” McGuiness said. “That leaves just 20 percent for the town of Cornwall.”
Ivor Hughes said he was not pleased with how much Monkton has spent so far on attorneys to represent the town in negotiations with Vermont Gas.
“This past year, we the taxpayers have spent $27,000 on attorney’s fees just to deal with Vermont Gas,” Hughes said. “This money could have been much better spent.”
Hughes also said that while a fraction — about 13 percent — of homes and businesses in town would be able to hook up to the natural gas line, those who could not would see their energy costs rise. Hughes argued the natural gas hookups in Vergennes, Monkton and Middlebury would lessen the demand for trucked fuel, like gas or propane. In turn, this would force some trucked fuel companies out of business.
“That leaves the rest of us with very little competition, and the dealers who are left will be left with rural routes,” Hughes said. “Therefore, we can expect the cost of our fuel to go up.”
Carole Wageman, whose Hollow Road property the pipeline would run through, said Vermont Gas not been responsive to her and her husband’s concerns. She recounted how she worked with several different land agents over the course of 2013, and that each said Vermont Gas might be able to accommodate some of their requests.
Wageman said she received in December 2013 a draft easement contract from Vermont Gas that was identical to the draft contract she was first sent in February.
“Nothing had been changed,” Wageman said. “Not one of our concerns had been mentioned.”
Wageman said in January she received a phone call from the agent assigned to her property, who stated that if Wageman did not reach an agreement with Vermont Gas, the utility would begin the process of acquiring it by eminent domain.
“We waited seven months for a response, and then were verbally threatened with condemnation proceedings without receiving any acknowledgement of the questions and issues we had given them,” Wageman said. “We have never shut the door on negotiations, however this is an unethical and bullying tactic that is thoughtless, ingenuous, and definitely in contrast with Vermont Gas’ stated interest to apologize for its earlier blunders in the community of Monkton.”
Wageman’s comments, like those of several of her neighbors, drew applause from the audience.
In January, Vermont Gas sent letters to letters to several Monkton landowners, saying if they did not come to the negotiating table, the utility would begin condemnation proceedings in front of the Public Service Report. Based on both state statutes and historical precedents of utilities seeking land via eminent domain in Vermont, it is unlikely that landowners would prevail in such a proceeding.
The Public Service Board, the three-member quasi-judicial body that regulates utilities in Vermont, issued a Certificate of Public Good for Phase I of the Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project, which will run from Colchester to Middlebury, through the town of Monkton. The board has not yet ruled on Phase II.
Cornwall selectboard Chair Bruce Hiland has been equally frustrated in his town’s dealings with Vermont Gas.
“We’ve tried to communicate with Vermont Gas and (International Paper. Negotiations need to have intelligent and informed people on both sides of the table; Ben Marks and I haven’t had that pleasure yet,” Hiland said.
“We feel like we’re talking to an empty room.”
Cornwall landowner Randy Martin explained the difficulty he’s had dealing with Vermont Gas and also expressed frustration with the Public Service Board, which last week sent him a letter that gave him only five days to decide whether he would become an official party in the proceedings.
Marks referred to a 2013 Addison Independent article in which Vermont Gas CEO Don Gilbert was quoted.
“Don Gilbert said, ‘If you don’t want us, we won’t come,’” Marks said. “This is our opportunity to respond to Don and tell him where we are at.”
That same evening in Shoreham, the division of opinion was not as one-sided, but it did tilt away from the pipeline. The  final four items on the town meeting warning concerned the Addison-Rutland Natural Gas Project and received the most discussion.
Article 13 was the centerpiece of the discussion. It read: “Are you as a Shoreham voter in favor of the proposed Addison Natural Gas Phase 2 gas pipeline which extends from Middlebury through the towns of Cornwall and Shoreham beneath Lake Champlain to the International Paper Mill in Ticonderoga?”
Almost three-fifths of those voting said No. the tally was 38 yes, 66 no.
Independent reporters John S. McCright and Evan Johnson contributed to this story.

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