Editorial: Vt. Gas easements and the law of unintended consequences

In public policy, what seems simple is not always so.
Such is the case with the proposed article facing Middlebury voters via Australian ballot on Nov. 7, which asks if voters “shall approve the current Deed of Easement agreements as approved by the Select board at their meeting on June 27 2017, and convey three land easements (one behind the town office and Ilsley library, one near Mister Ups Restaurant, and one on Mill Street) to Vermont Gas Systems?”
By all accounts, the thrust of the petition that prompted this special vote was to require Vermont Gas Systems to pay a fee for easements across town land on three small parking lots. In his petition and in news reports, Middlebury resident Ross Conrad simply argued that a big utility should be expected to pay easement rights across town property even though town policy had long allowed other utilities — such as Green Mountain Power and telecommunications companies — to avoid paying similar easements.
Many residents, especially those inclined to oppose the expansion of any fossil fuel use, saw this as a no-brainer and eagerly signed the petition — and are no doubt ready to cast a vote against these easements without a second thought.
But there’s a hitch, and a reason to think twice: The article reads in such a way that it could prevent Vermont Gas from serving that area of the downtown. That is, the article does not suggest renegotiating the rate of the easements, but just whether to approve the prior agreement.
If Middlebury residents vote against the article, then natural gas service to those affected businesses (about 15 potential customers, says Vermont Gas) would be effectively denied, potentially costing those businesses more in fuel costs and placing this area at a competitive disadvantage.
And that’s the nut of this issue: the harm is to the local businesses. For Vermont Gas to lose a few accounts is, to be frank, not a big deal.
But allMiddlebury residents are the losers in two important ways:
• First, the estimated cost to Vermont Gas for these three easements is a one-time fee of $5,000 to $6,000. Period. On the other hand, the estimated property tax paid to the town by Vermont Gas for the infrastructure needed to serve that area would yield about $2,500 per year, being reduced annually as it depreciates to a base level, then at that level year after year. Simple math suggests the town loses tens of thousands of dollars over the long term.  It’s not a lot of money either way, but if we’re dealing in facts — Middlebury residents fare far better by voting yes, than by voting no.
• Second, it’s essential to any downtown to have a critical mass of economic activity — housing, restaurants, retail, office space, etc. By voting against these easements, town residents would make the area less likely to be developed and the downtown less vibrant.
Both consequences are counter to what Middlebury residents should want — a higher grand list (that is, lower property taxes) and a more lively downtown — all for the sake of, and let’s be honest, the satisfaction of sticking it in the eye of Vermont Gas.
The language of this article might have caused this unintended problem, and we’ll file a more complete news report in Thursday’s Addison Independent. But it could also be that the intended process is to first nullify this current agreement on the easements, and then offer a revised agreement (with the higher cost) to Vermont Gas in the hope they’ll say yes. But that’s not a guaranteed outcome. To do so, Vermont Gas risks setting a precedent for all utilities to pay for easements across public land statewide. And you can bet those other utilities will pressure Vermont Gas not to cave in.
In the meantime, residents already have access to absentee ballots and a few have cast votes; other residents might want to hold off until a more complete explanation of the article’s consequence is explained. A public hearing is set for Monday, Nov. 6 at 7 p.m. at the Mary Hogan Elementary School.
But this much we already know: If the outcome is to deny natural gas service to these areas of the downtown, Middlebury residents will once again witness the law of unintended consequences.
Angelo Lynn

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