Bristol board warm to gas pipeline; some residents cooler

BRISTOL — Officials from Vermont Gas Systems shared their plans for extending their natural gas pipeline into Bristol at a special selectboard meeting Monday evening at Holley Hall.
While some in the audience of more than 20 Addison County residents — mostly from Bristol — welcomed the arrival of piped natural gas, there was also a significant amount of confusion, frustration and concern for the environment expressed by many others.
Several people were confused about the official status of the project, including Bristol resident Jono Chapin. The meeting warning said the selectboard was considering a memorandum of understanding with Vermont Gas, but some felt that details on that agreement were hard to come by.
 “Are we feeling the town out or is this a done deal?” Chapin asked.
Selectboard Chair John “Peeker” Heffernan said the board was in the process of “finalizing” an agreement. Pressed for clarification, he said, “We have not signed an agreement for them to put lines in our right of way.”
Heffernan reminded the public that the selectboard did sign a letter of support for the project on Dec. 18, 2012, when it was first floated.
“What was posed to us in 2012 was, were we willing to support the idea of low-cost fuel coming to Bristol, and the answer at that time was yes. And I believe that the answer today is still yes, as we support the idea of low-cost fuel coming to Bristol to help our residents,” Heffernan said. “We as a board felt that it was important to give the choice of a different fuel to our residents, if it was available.”
Vermont Gas said the soonest they could deliver their product in Bristol is sometime in 2019.
Monday’s community forum followed the Dec. 4, 2017, selectboard meeting where several Bristol residents expressed concerns about whether the board was giving enough opportunity for public input on any agreement between the town and Vermont Gas.
The South Burlington company last spring finished its 43-mile pipeline from Colchester to Middlebury and is also building a spur to Vergennes. Vermont Gas has been signing up customers in Middlebury, including some big commercial operations. But the pipeline has been criticized for the way in which the company treated some landowners, for allegedly not burying the pipeline as deep as required and for doubling in price over the course of the five years it took to build it.
Others have complained that installing natural gas infrastructure delays any response to climate change and will create a pipeline that will need be scrapped in a few decades.
Copies of the nine-page draft of a proposed Vermont Gas–Bristol memorandum, dated Dec. 18, 2017, were available at the Monday’s meeting.
Vermont Gas Vice President of Customers and Community Tom Murray, who gave a 35-minute presentation, said his company sees this agreement as a kind of “rules of the road.”
“It’s about how we’re going to work with the town, to make sure we build in a way that’s consistent with the town’s policies around things like road maintenance and things like that.”
Vermont Gas representatives fielded several questions about fracking, tree preservation, gas leaks and renewable energy.
Murray, who has lived in Vermont his entire life, insisted the company has an “outstanding safety record” and that the “company is founded in Vermont values.”
“I spend an enormous amount of time in the out of doors, and I love it,” he said. “I can think of nothing that I would do to harm the environment, and I’m a hundred percent confident that the product we deliver is a sound environmental product.”
The selectboard hasn’t set a date for when it will vote on a Vermont Gas memorandum, but town officials said it was likely to be on the agenda for the Feb. 19 meeting.
Heffernan said the project still has to go through the state’s Act 250 land use certification process, and that would be a good venue for citizens to raise concerns.
“Our agreement with (Vermont Gas) is just the manner in which they’re going to work in our right of ways,” he said.
Selectboard member Michelle Perlee added that selectboard email addresses are listed on the town website and that residents should feel free to submit questions or concerns, though she cautioned that individual board members could not speak for the board as a whole.
Frustrations surfaced when some attendees questioned whether or not the selectboard had sought enough input from the public, or made an effort to publicize its activities.
The town had posted notice of Monday’s meeting on its website and through its direct email list. Meeting agendas also typically appear at Lawrence Memorial Library, Shaw’s and outside the town office entrance. Town Administrator Valerie Capels and Perlee had each posted separate notices on Front Porch Forum and a notice appeared on Facebook on Feb. 9. The Addison Independent carried the agenda in its Feb. 12 edition.
“We’re open to other suggestions,” Capels added.
At Monday night’s meeting, however, Jennifer Vyhnak said it wasn’t enough.
“It’s not working about getting the word out and getting input,” she said.
Jan Louise Ball of Addison questioned whether the selectboard had solicited enough input from Bristol residents about such a large project: “I really believe that the people should be the ones who get to speak for what they want in their village.”
Perlee replied, “Well then they should have showed up.”
Others suggested that what was perceived by some as low attendance at the meeting was confirmation that most of the town was settled in favor of the agreement.
Kevin Hansen, who was frustrated the selectboard had not yet officially signed the agreement, said the majority of the town was looking forward to natural gas, and complained that the same objections were raised “over and over.”
Bill Sayre, a Bristol resident as well as a director at Vermont Gas, suggested that if a significant number of people in the town had concerns about the project, they would have attended the meeting to make their concerns known.
Monkton resident Sean Kimball was filming the meeting for community access Northeast Addison Television, known as NEAT TV, and has recorded other selectboard meetings for the past two years. He stepped out from behind the camera to share his thoughts.
Bristol selectboard members have struggled to find ways of engaging with the public is a recurring topic, he said.
“I still feel it’s word of mouth,” Kimball said. “And if you do go door to door and you get petitions up and you actually get people voicing their opinions to you, you can bring those opinions to the selectboard.”
He invited people to view past selectboard meetings at NEAT TV website, neatbristol.com.
“All that public knowledge is there,” he said. “They have not been hiding any of their decisions.”
Some residents were still frustrated. In a separate interview the morning after the meeting, Bristol resident Sally Burrell, who has significant concerns about the pipeline, said a “glitch” in the town website over the previous several weeks had prevented citizens from obtaining materials related to the upcoming meeting.
In one last appeal to the board to reconsider its commitment to the project, Chapin asked if Bristol was “courageous enough to go against the grain,” even if Middlebury and Vergennes had given Vermont Gas the green light.
In reply, Bristol resident Peter Ryan, who said he is eager to take advantage of the lower fuel cost promised by natural gas, argued that rejecting the pipeline wasn’t going to save the environment, anyway. He acknowledged that fracking and other environmental issues were unfortunate, but added that “if we stop these folks from coming to town it’s not going to make an ounce of difference.”
Christopher Ross is at [email protected].

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