Vt. Gas pledges to halt eminent domain use (for now)

ADDISON COUNTY — After receiving a request from Gov. Shumlin to do so, Vermont Gas Systems says it will hold off on filing eminent domain proceedings against landowners along the Phase I route of its pipeline. known as the Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project. The company also committed to halting negotiations with landowners who wish to stop talking until a new set of guidelines is established for relations between Vermont Gas and landowners.
The governor’s request, which was made in the form of a letter from his chief of staff, Liz Miller, to Vermont Gas Vice President Jim Sinclair, stemmed from a Nov. 13 meeting he held with a group of landowners from Chittenden and Addison counties.
The landowners, who live along Phase I and II of the pipeline route, requested two things of Vermont Gas: to halt easement talks until a new set of negotiating “ground rules” are agreed upon, and to create a legal fund to help landowners hire attorneys to negotiate complex easement agreements.
In her letter to the company, Miller said the administration supports the bulk of the landowners’ requests, though Vermont Gas may need to make some adjustments to meet them.
“The proposal for the landowners is, in our opinion, a significant step in the right direction,” Miller wrote.
Miller reiterated the governor’s positions that eminent domain be used only as a last resort, that negotiations be conducted fairly and that Vermont Gas meet with landowners and state regulators as soon as possible in an effort to improve equity in negotiations.
Vermont Gas said it welcomed the governor’s intervention, and acquiesced to some of the landowner requests. Company spokeswoman Beth Parent this week said Vermont Gas would hold off on filing new eminent domain proceedings against landowners and redouble its efforts to reach amicable agreements with landowners outside of court.
She said Vermont Gas land agents will give landowners the option of halting negotiations until the company, landowners and regulators can meet.
“We’re asking folks we’re currently in negotiation with if they want to stop being contacted,” Parent said.
Parent said she did not know how long the break in talks would last, but said the company is sticking by its projection to complete the 41-mile pipeline by the end of next year.
Parent also said Vermont Gas will consider creating a legal fund for landowners, something the company has staunchly opposed for months. Spokesman Steve Wark, Parent’s predecessor, told the Independent in August that the company did not support paying landowners’ legal bills.
“That would be akin to essentially funding somebody’s lawsuit against you,” Wark said on Aug. 12.
Parent said she did not want to comment on what Wark said then, nor if it represented a change in the company’s stance on the issue.
“All I know is that we’re open to considering it now,” Parent said.
For the past week, Parent said, the company has been reaching out to landowners to set up a meeting to discuss how to improve negotiations. She said Vermont Gas is optimistic it can find common ground with landowners.
“We want to sit down at the table and really try and communicate with this group,” Parent said. “Eminent domain is a very last resort, and that’s not something we’re thinking about right now.”
The company also agreed to provide to the group a list of all the landowners who have signed agreements with Vermont Gas, in what Parent said was an effort to improve transparency and communication. She said the company would not make that list public at this time, but could do so in the future. In the past, Vermont Gas has refused to identify landowners along the route or discuss individual easements.
Champlain Valley residents who live along the pipeline route said they are skeptical that Vermont Gas will make good on its pledge to improve negotiations and do all it can to avoid eminent domain.
After Vermont Gas sent a press release Nov. 29 announcing a new “direct dialogue” with landowners, the group who met with the governor fired off a statement of their own on Dec. 1.
In it, landowners said they do not believe the company is committed to more equitable negotiations nor increased transparency about the project.
“Once again Vermont Gas is using a negotiating platform as some twisted press advantage instead of dealing forthrightly with the issue,” said Maren Vasatka of Monkton.
Later in the release, landowner George Gross called the Vermont Gas announcement “tone deaf propaganda.”
Parent disputed the assessment that the company is negotiating with landowners unfairly.
“Our relationships with most landowners have been and continue to be constructive,” Parent said. “We will keep working with each landowner in a fair and respectful fashion.”
Landowners said they are wary of Vermont Gas’ most recent pledge to reform its negotiating tactics because they feel commitments the company made throughout 2014 to reset talks with them have been nothing but empty rhetoric.
Melanie Peyser, whose mother lives along the pipeline route in Monkton, said she believed the most recent Vermont Gas announcement was another example of how the company promises to change, but preserves the status quo.
“I think their goal was to corner us to go back to the same old way,” she said. “The reason we went back to the governor is because we’ve been burned every time we tried to go that way.”
To date, Parent said the company has spent $2.3 million on land acquisition costs for Phase I, and secured land rights for 80 percent of the 221 parcels along the route.
Reporter Zach Despart can be reached at [email protected].

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