Landowners in Monkton rebuff Vt. Gas offers for easements

ADDISON COUNTY — Vermont Gas Systems on Tuesday announced that it had secured 75 percent of the easements it needs to build Phase I of the Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project, a pipeline that will run 41 miles from Colchester to Middlebury and Vergennes.
The South Burlington company said it had made “significant progress” by securing easements for 166 of 221 parcels needed for the route.
“It’s been a good year,” company spokesman Steve Wark said. “We’ve made some pretty good progress.”
But in Monkton, the pace of that progress has been glacial. Since June, Vermont Gas has secured just one easement, from the Latreille family for $15,000, according to town land records.
To date, Vermont Gas has secured easements for 17 of 36 parcels needed in Monkton, or slightly less than half. The company has spent $289,000 on 16 easements and one 53-acre land purchase in the town.
Since the project was proposed three years ago, the small Addison County town has served as a hotbed of opposition to the pipeline. On Town Meeting Day this year, residents voted nearly unanimously to denounce it.
Landowners in Monkton said that land use negotiations with Vermont Gas have not been fruitful.
Jane Palmer, whose land the pipeline would run though, said this spring Vermont Gas expressed interest in purchasing her farm outright, but negotiations fell apart. In the six months since, Palmer said no progress has been made.
“VGS has not made an offer, ever,” Palmer said.
Palmer said she and her husband, Nathan, would be willing to sign an easement if Vermont Gas pays for their attorney’s fees from a meeting with the company in April the couple brought their lawyer to. Palmer said the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the sale of their farm, but said that Vermont Gas “changed the negotiation circumstances” and should therefore pay for the Palmers’ lawyer’s time.
Landowner Maren Vasatka said she and her husband are still negotiating with Vermont Gas, have not agreed on a price or how the company will ensure that it won’t damage her driveway by drilling underneath it.
She said she is frustrated a land agent hasn’t come to negotiate in person since the spring.
“They haven’t been to the house since March,” Vasatka said.
Of the remaining landowners for the entire route, Wark said the company is making progress in 43 negotiations and is at a standstill with 11.
Wark said the company is “actively engaged in negotiations” with the latter group, which represents about 5 percent of the total parcels needed for the project.
As he has said since the company first threatened to pursue eminent domain in February, Wark repeated Tuesday that he is optimistic the company will reach amicable agreements with each landowner out of court.
In August, Vermont Gas announced it would hire independent mediators to help landowners negotiate with company land agents. Wark touted that move as a success, and said each of the five landowners that signed up for mediation has agreed to an easement.
“We’ve had another nine that have signed up,” Wark said.
Wark said the company filed eminent domain proceedings against four landowners this summer. One landowner settled immediately, and Vermont Gas withdrew the other three cases for technical reasons.
Wark said the company, despite continued resistance from a small group of landowners, does not plan to pursue eminent domain in the near future.
“At this stage, what we’re going to try and do is we want to work with all the folks to reach a fair agreement,” he said. “We don’t have any filings planned.”
Philip Beliveau of St. George said he was one of the residents whose land Vermont Gas began proceedings to seize. He said the company dropped the proceedings and instead offered him arbitration, which he said he will enter with his attorney.
Wark said the company has not set a hard deadline by which it will seek eminent domain if it cannot secure land rights voluntarily. The company hopes to complete the pipeline by late 2015.
If the company plans to meet that deadline, it will likely have no choice but to begin eminent domain proceedings early next year. Eminent domain proceedings, which are adjudicated by the Public Service Board, could take months. Landowners have the option of appealing to the Supreme Court, which could further lengthen the process.
Since breaking ground in June, construction crews have laid five miles of pipe in the ground in Essex, Williston and Colchester, including underneath the Winooski River.
When the ground freezes in coming weeks, Vermont Gas will suspend construction until the spring.

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