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Landowner, Vermont Gas at odds over easement

ST. GEORGE — A St. George landowner who lives along the route for Phase 1 of the Addison-Rutland Natural Gas project is at odds with Vermont Gas Systems over how much the company should pay to build the natural gas pipeline across his land.
Philip Beliveau is in the process of subdividing his 58-acre parcel into 19 parcels for a housing development, but Vermont Gas has assessed the value of his property as a singular parcel, and offered an easement payout based on that sum.
Beliveau, 57, believes the subdivided land will be worth as much as 10 times the current value of his property, and said he deserves to be compensated as such.
Beliveau’s parcel, which his family has owned for decades, is adjacent to Route 2A and is bisected by the VELCO corridor. He jointly owns the property with his wife, Caroline Jalbert. It is assessed by the town at $237,200 and is composed of forest and hay fields. Vermont Gas wants to run the natural gas pipeline through his land, partially in the VELCO power line corridor and partially off of it.
Beliveau is in the process securing local and state approval for the housing subdivision, which he believes will greatly increase the value of his land. He plans to use the profit to pay for his 12-year-old daughter’s future college education, as well as for his and his wife’s retirement. He began planning the subdivision in 2009, three years before Vermont Gas announced it plan to build a natural gas pipeline through Addison County.
“This isn’t something I just dreamed up, spur of the moment, to get more money out of Vermont Gas,” Beliveau said. “I have been in this process for a couple of years.”
Beliveau said he told the Vermont Gas land agent assigned to his parcel that he planned to subdivide his property, but the company would not amend its September 2013 appraisal of his land.
“The agent said, ‘Until you have permits in hand, that doesn’t mean anything to us,’” Beliveau said. “I told him where I was in the approval process, and I said I would get an appraisal of the land with the building lots, and he said that’s essentially irrelevant.”
Beliveau said he hopes to secure a state wastewater permit for the subdivision by the end of the summer, which he said will strengthen his negotiating position with Vermont Gas.
“That permit, to me, is at least one step up in proving a much higher commercial value for my property.”
Beliveau will also need approval from the town Development Review Board. Board Vice Chair Andrei Leontiev said that Beliveau had informally met with the board about getting a conditional use permit for the subdivision. He said he could not remember exactly how long Beliveau has been in talks with the town about subdividing his land, but said it had been “quite a while.”
Leontiev said Beliveau needs to file a formal application, and then the board will hold a public hearing on the proposal. He added that it is possible for Beliveau to secure a conditional use permit in the coming months.
“It could definitely be by the end of the year,” Leontiev said.
DIFFERENT OFFERS
Beliveau said he has studied research of property devaluation due to natural gas pipelines in the Midwest, and believes that his land will be devalued 10 to 15 percent by the Vermont Gas pipeline. Therefore, Beliveau said he believes Vermont Gas should pay him 10 percent of what he believes the value of his land will be when it is subdivided. He believes the 19 parcels will be worth a total of $2 million, and is asking the utility to pay him $200,000.
Vermont Gas has offered $9,300 for an easement, $9,300 in damages and $1,500 to use an access road on Beliveau’s property — a total of $20,100.
The company assessed the value of Beliveau’s land at $259,000, and estimated the pipeline would depreciate the value of the property by $2,300, or slightly less than one percent.
According to the Vermont Gas, their offer of $9,300 is “significantly higher than the appraised value of the proposed land or access rights Vermont Gas is seeking to acquire.”
Based on the history of the project so far, a $200,000 payout to Beliveau would be by far the largest payment Vermont Gas has issued for an easement. To date, the most the company has spent on any individual easement is $100,000, to the town of Williston. Many easements total as little as a few thousand dollars.
EMINENT DOMAIN
In a letter to Beliveau dated June 19, Vermont Gas land agent Dave Walker said if Beliveau and his wife were unable to reach a deal with the company, Vermont Gas would begin the process of eminent domain. The letter requested a response by July 9.
“While Vermont Gas remains committed to negotiating mutually agreeable terms, in the absence of clear and timely progress toward an agreement, the company will also need to initiate a second, concurrent approach toward that end,” Walker wrote.
The letter was similar to missives Vermont Gas sent Monkton residents in February.
Beliveau conceded he knows little about the complex eminent domain process, and said he is unsure whether he should hire a lawyer to advocate on his behalf, fearing that the legal fees would not be worth it.
“I’m at a loss of what to do at this point, because I can’t afford to pay a lawyer for a large chunk of time, and up with the $9,000 they’ve offered me,” Beliveau said.
Vermont Gas has said it has never used eminent domain in its 50-year history, and hopes it can secure all the land rights for the project without doing so. But given that the company has begun construction while still in need of agreements with two-thirds of landowners along the route, and the fact that dozens of residents in Monkton have said negotiations with the company have stalled, it seems unlikely that the company will complete the pipeline without using eminent domain.
Beliveau, who has never subdivided property before or negotiated an easement, said he doesn’t know what he should do next. He said no matter if he negotiates an easement or takes his case to eminent domain, he worries that the process will be financially draining.
“We’re not wealthy people, by any means,” Beliveau said. “I’m paying out of pocket through this process of subdividing, and the thought of having to pay a lawyer and go through the whole process is pretty daunting, at this point.”
Given that the gap between his offer and Vermont Gas’ is so significant, he is unsure he will be able to avoid entering an eminent domain proceeding.
“I don’t know,” Beliveau said. “I guess that’s somewhat up to them.”
Walker referred questions to company spokesman Steve Wark, who did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

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