Regional planning commission re-evaluating stance on pipeline

MIDDLEBURY — The Addison County Regional Planning Commission is undecided on what the public body’s new position should be on a natural gas pipeline project headed to Middlebury.
The regional planning commission brings delegates from 21 towns around Addison County together to adopt a regional plan, discuss community and economic development, and advise communities on energy and land use policy. It meets monthly and is one of 10 regional planning commissions across Vermont.
After holding two conflicting votes in April and June, the body will meet July 1 to see if delegates can reach a consensus on whether to continue, rescind, or amend its official position on the Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project.
Phase I of the project, managed by Vermont Gas Systems, has been under construction between Colchester and Middlebury since summer 2014. Phase II of the project, which would have carried the natural gas pipeline to an International Paper mill in Ticonderoga, N.Y., has dissolved.
Four months before Vermont Gas got its official state permit for the Phase I project in December 2013, the commission signed a memorandum of understanding with the company saying it supported Phase I of the project in order to promote the “orderly development of the region.” The towns of Middlebury and Shoreham signed MOUs with the company, but Cornwall declined.
Since then, the cost estimate for the pipeline project has risen twice from its $86.6 million estimate in 2013 and now stands at $153.6 million to serve about 3,000 customers. The utility-regulating Public Service Board has twice taken the permitting case from the Vermont Supreme Court and is scheduled to hear testimony June 22-23 to help determine whether state should take away Vermont Gas’ permit.
Now, through a petitioning process allowed under the Addison County Regional Planning Commission’s bylaws, 10 delegates have convinced the body to discuss on July 1 whether the commission should change its official position.
The 10 delegates’ petition letter also asks Adam Lougee, executive director of the commission, to contact all stakeholders in the Public Service Board’s case and ask for short summaries of their positions.
Lougee said he does not have a position on the pipeline case and called it his job to make sure the delegates feel they are being treated fairly.
“The integrity of the commission of a whole is my priority,” he said.
Ross Conrad, one of Middlebury’s alternate delegates to the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, wrote the letter. He said the July 1 discussion is necessary to understand the case and take an official position.
At an April vote of the full commission, delegates voted 15-6 not to “reiterate its support” for the memorandum of understanding it signed with Vermont Gas about the pipeline project. There were no votes in May. On Wednesday, June 10, the commission voted 16-7 not to rescind the entire memorandum of understanding, called an MOU.
“I just think (the pipeline project) probably does deserve to be relooked at,” Conrad said. “There are definitely some questions, and clearly the commission is not ready to get rid of the agreement we have with Vermont Gas should the project go through. But there are definitely some questions.”
Barrie Bailey, an alternate for the town of Salisbury, also doesn’t have voting power on the commission. She said she opposes the pipeline project, and wants to see the summaries after the Public Service Board hearings.
“I’m opposed to increasing fossil fuel use, and I think that people forget that gas is a fossil fuel because it’s very convenient to have gas,” Bailey said. “I think morally, it’s corrupt. We need to get off of fossil fuel.”
She added, “I’d say the majority (of the commission) doesn’t agree. The majority wants gas.”
Beth Parent, a spokesperson for Vermont Gas, said the company appreciates the commission’s vote not to rescind the memorandum of understanding and wants to work with the community to lower home heating costs.
She called natural gas a “clean,” “reliable” fuel and said the company wants to “make sure we get the facts” to the Addison County Regional Planning Commission and the towns it serves.
“We still believe that it’s in the public good, and we’re looking forward to presenting our case to the Public Service Board,” Parent said.

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