Vt. Gas eyes seizure of Monkton parcels through eminent domain

MONKTON — Vermont Gas Systems on Monday announced it had begun eminent domain proceedings against two Monkton landowners along the route for Phase I of the company’s Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project pipeline.
The push is part of an effort by the company to secure all the land rights it needs to complete the 41-mile pipeline from Colchester to Middlebury and Vergennes. The company said it now has secured rights from 85 percent of the 200 landowners along the route.
Vermont Gas broke ground on the project in June of last year, and hopes to complete the project next spring. But that won’t be possible until the company secures land rights for the entire route.
Eminent domain is the process by which a government seizes private property for public use. In this case, Vermont Gas is using the Certificate of Public Good the Public Service Board issued the project in 2013 as justification for seeking land via eminent domain. In the past, state and federal courts have held that eminent domain can be used to secure private land for utility projects, which benefit the public at large.
Phase I of the pipeline will run through the towns of Colchester, Essex, Williston, Hinesburg, St. George, Monkton, New Haven, Ferrisburgh, Vergennes and Middlebury.
But while Vermont Gas has secured all the land it needs in several municipalities, Monkton, the rural town of less than 2,000 residents, has been a thorn in the side of Vermont Gas ever since it proposed the project in 2012. Since then, anti-pipeline signs have lined the roads of the town, and many residents have spoken publicly against the project. On Town Meeting Day last year, residents overwhelmingly passed a resolution denouncing the pipeline.
Vermont Gas has tried to secure land rights for the three-dozen parcels in Monkton since 2013. According to town land records, Vermont Gas has spent $608,578 securing land rights for 22 parcels in Monkton. The figure includes 19 easements and three outright land purchases totaling 94.7 acres. That would leave 17 parcels left in Monkton (representing 13 landowners), out of a total of about 30 landowners the company still needs to come to terms with.
Vermont Gas first sent letters indicating the company would soon pursue eminent domain to nine Monkton landowners in February of 2014. After landowners said they felt bullied by the company’s tactics, the company withdrew the letters and pledged to try and avoid eminent domain.
Last summer, the company filed then withdrew a handful of eminent domain proceedings. In November, at the request of landowners, Gov. Peter Shumlin asked Vermont Gas to hold off on eminent domain filings until the spring, so residents and the company could agree on new ground rules before continuing negotiations.
The company said Monday that while it views eminent domain as a last resort, it must this month begin proceedings against a small number of landowners who “have been uncommunicative or where negotiations have reached an impasse.”
Citing privacy concerns, Vermont Gas declined to identify the two landowners in Monkton it has filed eminent domain claims against.
The company said it is necessary at this time to begin eminent domain proceedings in order to complete the project on budget and on time.
“We are open and hopeful that these landowners will engage with us to reach agreement. However, to keep the project on track and provide for timely delivery of service, this is a necessary and important step,” Vice President of System Expansion Jim Sinclair said in a statement.
It is difficult to predict how long eminent domain proceedings will last, but recent precedent gives a glimpse at what could happen. The Public Service Board presided over 21 eminent domain proceedings related to the VELCO Northwest Reliability Project between 2005 and 2008.
The Grice family of New Haven and Middleburylitigated their case against the electric company for three years, until the Supreme Court ruled for VELCO.
Vermont Gas scaled down construction this winter due to cold weather and frozen soil, but plans to ramp up work on the pipeline later this spring.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Vermont Gas has secured 200 of 220 necessary parcels for the pipeline. The company has secured rights from 85 percent, or about 170 of the 200 landowners.

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