Shumlin meets with landowners about Vermont Gas negotiations

MONTPELIER — A group of landowners along the route of the first phase of the Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project met with Gov. Peter Shumlin last week to discuss concerns they have with how Vermont Gas is negotiating easements for the pipeline.
For the half-hour sitdown at the governor’s office in Montpelier on Nov. 13, Shumlin brought along his chief of staff, Liz Miller, Department of Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia and Justin Johnson, the deputy secretary for the Agency of Natural Resources.
Both landowners and the governor told the Independent they came away pleased from the meeting.
Melanie Peyser, whose mother’s Monkton estate lies in the path of the pipeline, said that she was relieved to hear the governor agree with landowners that Vermont Gas has made missteps during the last two years of negotiations with landowners.
“I was pleased that he immediately recognized and stated that Vermont Gas has not been a good corporate citizen,” Peyser said.
Vermont Gas began construction on the 41-mile pipeline in June, but still has to secure easements from about 55 landowners, or about 25 percent of the total parcels along the route.
The landowners said Vermont Gas land agents have provided contradictory statements, failed to communicate in a timely manner and used coercive tactics to get residents to sign easements. They said they also feel that Gov. Shumlin did not know the full extent of how landowners are being treated.
“We felt the governor wasn’t getting the full story of what everyone’s experiences have been,” said Cornwall landowner Mary Martin.
The landowners asked the state to make two key concessions that the Department of Public Service has to date balked at: ordering Vermont Gas to halt easement talks until the state institutes new guidelines for fairness and transparency in negotiations, and provide landowners with reimbursement for legal fees, either from state coffers or from Vermont Gas.
Peyser said the landowners have some ideas for how their expenses could be reimbursed, and argued it would not be onerous.
“There’s some pretty simple policy ways to do this that would require some good will on behalf of Vermont Gas, but could be implemented inexpensively and without a major administrative burden.”
Martin said that without reimbursement for legal fees, landowners have a disincentive to hire an attorney to fight for their interests.
“Easement payments are so pitiful that by the time you’ve hired an attorney you’ve spent more than you would get,” Martin said.
The landowners noted that because the estimated $121 million cost of the project is borne by Vermont Gas ratepayers, all of the company’s legal fees are reimbursed by the project. This gives Vermont Gas an incentive to wage protracted legal battles against landowners.
In the past, Vermont Gas has objected to creating a legal fund for landowners, arguing that would be akin to financing their own opposition. But landowners say they don’t want attorneys to fight the pipeline, which the Public Service Board approved nearly a year ago — but rather to protect their property rights and ensure fair compensation.
Landowners have had some success in lobbying the state for more support. In August, the governor announced that the state would foot the bill for independent appraisers, after landowners expressed distrust in appraisers hired by Vermont Gas.
The landowners also asked the governor to tone down public support on the pipeline, because it may put undue pressure on regulators to push the project forward quickly. Peyser said that even the Public Service Board, which does not report to the governor, could be swayed by his vociferous support of the project.
Peyser said she was optimistic that the governor and his staff were receptive to landowner concerns, and would work to address them.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Peyser said. “My gut instinct is that the governor is being genuine.”
The governor agreed to a follow-up meeting Monday, where the group will discuss possible solutions.
Peyser said she was spurred on by the governor’s pledge to commit his immediate staff, like Miller, to addressing landowner concerns. She said over the last year landowners have had little success convincing the Department of Public Service and other executive agencies to take action.
“That needs to be the governor’s team,” Peyser said. “We can’t break the logjam with the agencies.”
Martin said she was also encouraged by the governor’s initiative.
“We’d like fair and transparent negotiations, and we were pleased when the governor said ‘we’re going to give you my team,’” she said.
Gov. Shumlin told the Independent Tuesday that he walked away from the talks with landowners optimistic that he can help repair damaged relations between them and Vermont Gas. He said he spent most of the meeting listening, and understands the concerns of landowners.
“Anyone who negotiates with Vermont Gas should get a fair deal, and they feel very strongly that fairness has not always been a part of the process,” Shumlin said.
The governor criticized the way Vermont Gas initially approached easement negotiations.
“I think Vermont Gas has missed some real opportunities to work together with landowners in a way that that reflects the way we do things in Vermont — cooperation, transparency and collaboration,” he said. “I think they got off to a pretty bad start.”
Shumlin said he was open to taking creative approaches to help landowners, he was noncommittal about whether the state was seriously considering a moratorium on negotiations or creating a legal fund for landowners.
“What we pledge to do is to be creative to try and find ways to alleviate some of their concerns as they try to come to resolution with Vermont Gas,” Shumlin said. “Our model isn’t exactly the same as other states.”
The landowners first asked the governor for a meeting this summer, and he said he would after the election. In the closer than expected contest, Shumlin lost two of the three Addison County towns along the Phase I route, New Haven and Monkton.

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