Middlebury residents vote for gas easements

MIDDLEBURY — Roughly 9 percent of Middlebury’s 4,925 registered voters turned out at the polls on Tuesday to green-light three free easements on public land that Vermont Gas needs to serve roughly 15 potential downtown customers — including the municipal building and the Ilsley Public Library.
Residents voted, 279 to 168, to affirm a Middlebury selectboard decision this past August to award the free easements — one behind the town offices and Ilsley Library, one near Mr. Ups Restaurant, and one on Mill Street.
Local resident Ross Conrad disagreed with the selectboard’s decision, and circulated a petition that forced Tuesday’s public vote on the easements.
Opponents were hoping for a “No” vote that would require Vermont Gas to negotiate a price for use of the town-owned property.
But Vermont Gas officials said Middlebury would be setting a statewide precedent if it required the company — a utility — to pay for the easements. Vermont Gas CEO Don Rendall said such a precedent might result in the company foregoing distribution line work in those three easement areas, thus denying — or significantly delaying — natural gas service to the 15 connections.
After the vote results that won’t be an issue. Vermont Gas Spokesperson Beth Parent said the company is wrapping up its 2017 construction season, so work within the three easements in question will occur next summer or fall.
“Vermont Gas is excited to be a member of the Middlebury community,” Parent said in response to the vote. “So far, almost 600 customers have signed up for service and last night’s vote will help us bring an important choice to even more families and businesses. We look forward to continuing to be a strong energy partner now and into the future.”
Vermont Gas has thus far installed natural gas pipeline in front of roughly 2,000 homes as part of the Addison Natural Gas Project (ANGP), according to Parent. Once crews are done installing pipeline infrastructure in Middlebury, they will shift construction focus to Vergennes and New Haven, Parent said.
The three Middlebury easements represented a very small fraction of the $165.9 million ANGP. Officials had placed the cost of the easements at around $7,000, and Vermont Gas will pay roughly $2,500 in annual property taxes on its infrastructure under those easements.
But Conrad asserted the company should have been charged a fee, arguing most residents Vermont Gas is seeking to serve are able to get propane, a comparable energy source. And he noted larger consumers are able to get portable tanks filled with natural gas at various locations in the state.
“Encouraging fossil fuel infrastructure by giving away community wealth in the form of easements is not only going to detract from efforts to replace fossil fuels with renewables, it’s going to make climate change worse,” Conrad said. “(Climate change) will increase costs to Vermonters when roads and bridges are washed out by floods, when farmers go bankrupt when their crops fail from droughts, and when there’s a cost to homeowners and businesses when their buildings are damaged by high winds.”
Conrad was disappointed with Tuesday’s Australian ballot turnout, but acknowledged the lack of other issues to bring more residents to the polls: The easements question was the only item on the ballot.
“It’s somewhat understandable,” he said.
He added some people who signed his petition forgot to vote, while others he spoke with in recent days were unaware the vote was taking place. Others were too busy.
“People were unable to make it to the polls,” Conrad said. “And that’s the Democratic process. Decisions are made by the people who show up.”
Conrad criticized Vermont Gas officials for stating prior to the vote that they weren’t inclined to negotiate fees for the easements due to the potential precedent.
“I’m amazed that Vermont Gas … was so concerned about a few extra thousand dollars to pay for easements and they were willing to hold Middlebury hostage by threatening not to hook up customers or take years to hook up customers unless they got their easements for free,” Conrad said.
Asked if he was contemplating additional opposition on the easements issue, Conrad replied, “I think this has basically settled the question in a democratic manner.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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