Vermont Gas pipeline nears easement goal
MONKTON — Vermont Gas officials on Thursday said the company has reached land easement agreements with 160 of the 164 affected property owners along the Addison Natural Gas Project corridor, and noted that eminent domain proceedings are still pending against the four landowners who have declined to sign deals.
“We are really close to having agreements with everyone,” Vermont Gas CEO Don Rendall said during a phone interview. “We’re still talking to most of the remaining four.”
The Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) has been re-examining the Certificate of Public Good it awarded Vermont Gas in 2013 for construction of the 41.2-mile pipeline from Colchester to Middlebury and Vergennes, in light of increased cost estimates for the massive project.
Vermont Gas in early October announced a memorandum of understanding with the Vermont Department of Public Service placing a limit of $134 million on the amount it will seek from its ratepayers for expenses related to the pipeline. That amount is $20 million less than the $154 million the company had forecasted for the project back in December 2014.
Vermont Gas officials early next month will make a presentation to the PSB regarding its memorandum of understanding with the state. With that in mind, company officials are hoping to give the PSB a good status report on what has been a controversial project in Addison County.
So far, Vermont Gas has laid 11 miles of pipeline. Completing the project on schedule in late 2016 will require acquisition of, or access to, 100 percent of the right-of-way in the pipeline corridor. Right-of-way needs include access for surveying, construction, and installation and maintenance of the underground pipeline and associated facilities.
Rendall reiterated his hope that Vermont Gas will be able to pull the plug on eminent domain proceedings against the four remaining property owners.
“I am grateful to the landowners who have worked with the company to reach agreement. This process requires commitment and attention, and I want to thank them for their hard work and effort,” Rendall said. “Where possible, we will continue to work with remaining landowners to try to reach agreements.
“We are hoping for resolution of these (disputes) by June of 2016, and we will have a work schedule that will be consistent with that timeframe,” Rendall added.
All four of the remaining “holdout” property owners reside in Monkton.
Among them is resident Louise Selina Peyser. She has, through her attorney, asked the PSB to stay the condemnation proceedings that Vermont Gas has initiated against her property until the outstanding issues related to the company’s Certificate of Public Good have been resolved.
“If the (PSB) were to commence condemnation proceedings and then amend the Certificate of Public Good in some way that affects the Peyser property, the procedural validity of the proceeding would be compromised at the beginning,” reads a memorandum filed with the PSB on Nov. 17 on behalf of Peyser.
Vermont Gas is opposing Peyser’s motion, arguing that “public interest” requires that the pipeline project proceed without delay.
Peyser was unavailable for comment as the Addison Independent went to press on Friday.
Monkton Selectman Stephen Pilcher offered his thoughts on the current status of relations between his town and Vermont Gas.
“The Vermont Gas pipeline through the town of Monkton has been, and continues to be, a contentious issue,” he said.
“Over the past two months Vermont Gas has proposed two pipeline re-routes that would allow Vermont Gas to avoid or resolve three other eminent domain proceedings in Monkton,” he added. “One of these eminent domain dockets has been stayed by the PSB while the current remand of the Vermont Gas Certificate of Public Good is being heard. It remains to be seen whether these proceedings will be stayed by the PSB as well.
“In its memo of understanding with the town of Monkton, Vermont Gas agreed that eminent domain could only be used as a last resort.”
AVOIDING A PROBLEM
Vermont Gas on Thursday also said it will reroute the natural gas pipeline around a property in Monkton owned by a couple who has been intervening in the regulatory process for more than a year in opposition to the Addison-Rutland Natural Gas Project. This month it filed paperwork with the PSB saying it wanted to change the route of the pipeline in Monkton on Rotax Road, where Nathan and Jane Palmer live. The Palmers are among the most active opponents of the pipeline, and they have pressed for landowner rights in the easement process for more than a year.
“It was impossible to (move around our property) before,” Nathan Palmer told VTDigger.org. “Now all of a sudden it’s possible. I think a lot of these non-substantive changes they’re pushing through are just so they can get the pipeline done faster and quicker.
“It doesn’t mean that we’re not impacted still,” he said. “They do have to get permission from the board to go around us.”
Shoreham resident Barb Wilson was part of a 10-person group that worked with the Shumlin administration to lobby for better compensation and improved terms and conditions of easements for affected property owners. Wilson’s property would have been affected by a second phase of the pipeline project that has since been withdrawn. But she said she has remained interested in the cause of those affected by the Addison Natural Gas Project pipeline.
Wilson said she’s concerned that those who signed easement agreements early on in the process might not have adequate protections if Vermont Gas should choose in the future to add to its pipeline infrastructure using those same easements. She continues to believe neighbors have not been adequately involved in the review process.
“Many of us are concerned (Vermont Gas) is not being more upfront with landowners, and if they can get away with something, they will,” Wilson said.
Rendall disputes such assertions, and said Vermont Gas began a new chapter in its public outreach and project planning when he took the reins of the company in late 2014.
“When I joined Vermont Gas about a year ago, I was laser focused on getting our Addison expansion project on track, on time and on budget,” he said. “I also committed to improving landowner negotiations by setting a new standard for this work. This project is so important to Addison County and our state because it will give thousands more residents and businesses the choice of cleaner, more affordable and reliable natural gas.”
Middlebury residents and businesspeople will notice a lot of pipeline-related work next year, according to Rendall.
“We expect to be doing a lot of work in Middlebury next year, to build out the distribution system, and we will be connecting customers as expeditiously and efficiently as we can as we complete the project and get it into service,” Rendall said.
VT Digger.org reporter Erin Mansfield contributed to this story.
Addison Independent reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.