Public Service Board might close Vt. Gas hearings

MONTPELIER — The Vermont Public Service Board is considering whether to bar the public from attending eminent domain hearings for a controversial gas pipeline.
The board has asked participants in the Vermont Gas Systems hearings for comment by March 31.
Protesters have interrupted eminent domain proceedings, the March 17 court order says, “by shouting, singing loudly, and leaving their seats to crowd the physical space around many of the parties and the court reporter.”
Law enforcement officials have expressed doubt over whether they can prevent protesters from disrupting future hearings.
The board’s request for comment was issued in part out of concern for the safety of participants and others who may be in attendance at the hearings.
Jim Dumont, a Bristol-based attorney for several of the private landowners, wrote in a response to the board’s order that it is wrong for the board to treat peaceful protesters as a threat to public safety.
“One may disagree with the protesters’ views on the efficacy or style of their protests, but I think it ill serves reasonable public debate about this terribly important subject to suggest that their actions have been tainted by threats of violence,” Dumont wrote.
Dumont told the board to do whatever they consider necessary to maintain order during the proceedings, but said it would be inappropriate to exclude the public. That would go against the First Amendment, the Vermont Constitution, and Vermont’s open meetings laws, he said.
“Any member of the public who disrupts the proceedings can be removed by law enforcement,” he said. “There is no legitimate reason to exclude members of the public who do not disrupt the proceedings.”
One of the protesters said he plans to continue agitating against the pipeline as long as he is able.
“If there are more eminent domain hearings, there will be protests,” said Alex Prolman, an organizer with the anti-pipeline group Rising Tide Vermont.
“The eminent domain process is structured so that the company is always going to win at the end of the day,” he said. “It’s just the most egregious example of the state working with the company to pave the way for the pipeline. It’s worth fighting against, and we’ll definitely keep doing so.”
Vermont Gas spokeswoman Beth Parent said she couldn’t comment on the company’s response to the board’s order because it has not yet been submitted.
Protesters have forestalled several attempts by the Public Service Board to conduct hearings on eminent domain proceedings against landowners across whose property Vermont Gas would bury the pipeline. Protesters have also prevented multiple attempts by appraisers to valuate the land.
Vermont Gas has built an 11-mile pipeline between Colchester to Williston, which is part of the 41-mile project. When complete it will extend to Middlebury.
The company has negotiated agreements from 98 percent of landowners to build a pipeline through Addison County.

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