Vermont Gas proceeds with final hearings for Phase I pipeline
MONKTON — Three landowners now stand between Vermont Gas Systems and the 164 property easements it needs to proceed with Phase I of the Addison County pipeline project — if, that is, the Public Service Board decides in Vermont Gas’s favor when it issues a decision in its reexamination of the project’s 2013 Certificate of Public Good.
The Public Service Board’s decision on the project’s 2013 Certificate of Public Good was expected in December, but it has yet to issue a determination. If the PSB fails to reach a decision by Jan. 8, a Memorandum of Understanding between the PSB and Vermont Gas that caps the ratepayer subsidy at $134 million of the current $153.6 million cost estimate will expire.
Earlier in the year, the PSB had “declined to take action” in regard to Vermont Gas’s requests to use eminent domain against hold-out property owners while the PSB reexamined the pipeline project’s Certificate of Public Good. But in late November, the PSB issued an order that reversed its earlier policy in response to Vermont Gas’s argument that timeliness was critical for the project to be able to go forward and in recognition that its own decision-making process in reevaluating the project’s Certificate of Public Good was taking longer than expected.
That order allowed Vermont Gas to move ahead with eminent domain proceedings against property owners Terence and Kari Cuneo of Williston, and Monkton residents Claire Broughton, James Morrow and Louise Peyser.
Morrow and Vermont Gas settled in late December. Eminent domain proceedings are still in motion against the Cuneos, Broughton and Peyser.
The PSB’s order limited the next steps Vermont Gas could take in the eminent domain process to a preconference hearing and a site visit, in each case. The order also made clear the importance to the PSB of Vermont Gas’s agreement to cover certain of the property owners’ legal funds, up to $10,000 each.
Last Wednesday the PSB held an eminent domain pre-hearing conference and a site visit concerning Monkton property owned by Louise Peyser. The conference was cut short when protesters, largely from Rising Tide Vermont, interrupted the proceeding by loudly singing “All the people are asking you to leave these folks alone/There’s no need to take their land and home.”
More than 40 people were present for the pre-hearing conference in the Monkton Fire Station, including John Cotter, the hearing officer for the Public Service Board; Peyser and her attorney, Robert Woolmington; representatives from Vermont Gas; Louise Porter, special counsel for the Vermont Department of Public Service; other community members, including Monkton Selectman Stephen Pilcher and Ivor Hughes of the Monkton Planning Commission; and more than 30 anti-pipeline activists.
The meeting began at 1:30 p.m. and was almost immediately interrupted by Monkton resident Jane Palmer, who stood up and strongly questioned the legitimacy of the hearing and the proceedings against Peyser. As Palmer continued to speak and as Cotter attempted unsuccessfully to silence her, members of the activist group Rising Tide Vermont stood and held up signs saying “Just Power” and “Stop the Fracked Gas Pipeline.”
Cotter then once again resumed the proceedings and was once again interrupted by the activists, who this time began singing and making noise.
As the singing continued, growing louder and louder, representatives from the various parties huddled around Cotter and continued the prehearing conference. Cotter then abruptly called the meeting adjourned just 12 minutes after it had begun.
According to a press statement from Rising Tide, protesters then blocked the second part of the pre-conference hearing, a site visit to Peyser’s 108-acre property.
Although Cotter himself, as a hearing officer, would not speak directly to theIndependent, Clerk of the PSB Susan Hudson reported the next day that Cotter said “the pre-hearing conference was concluded” and that no decision had been made as to how to proceed with the site visit.
Said Vermont Gas spokesperson Elizabeth Parent, “Although eminent domain is a last resort, we are committed to reaching a resolution with any of the remaining landowners who are willing. Yesterday’s status conference was a step towards resolution, which is important for the landowners and for Vermont Gas. It’s unfortunate that some individuals felt the need to disrupt a proceeding that looks after the interest of all parties.”
Peyser’s attorney said that for his client the next step will be awaiting the PSB’s decision about the project’s Certificate of Public Good.
Peyser’s daughter, when contacted for the family’s response to Wednesday’s events said, “Today is my mom’s 81st birthday. She’s spent the last three-plus years worrying about her home and the impact of the pipeline on Vermont. While unexpected, I think that what happened yesterday is an indicator of how widespread the concern about this pipeline and its costs to Vermonters has become. It’s not just a couple of little old ladies in Monkton, who are up on the numbers and climate science. Grassroots activists are demonstrating, and farmers, legislators and their constituent ratepayers who’ll pay for the pipeline, along with youth, faith, and business leaders … saying that an environmentally damaging and unnecessary pipeline is simply too costly an option for Vermont and Vermonters.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected]