Bristol delays natural gas pact

BRISTOL — Opponents of the natural gas pipeline proposed for Bristol won a partial — albeit temporary — victory at Monday night’s selectboard meeting.
After roughly 90 minutes of intense discussion, during which the selectboard was often put on the defensive, the four members present voted unanimously to table a motion pledging their signatures on a license agreement with Vermont Gas Systems (VGS).
The board had begun its meeting with an executive session unrelated to VGS. By the time they opened the doors, more than 30 town residents were waiting for them.
Among those residents was Ian Albinson, a member of Bristol’s Energy Committee, who presented to the board a letter criticizing its handling of negotiations with VGS.
“At no point in this project’s six year history was the Energy Committee ever consulted or invited to lend its expertise to the discussion,” Albinson wrote. Neither the planning commission nor the conservation commission was involved, either, he added.
Albinson provided in support of his letter the findings of extensive research he’d conducted on the board’s meeting minutes between 2012 and 2018.
“Though it has been stated in many meetings that this project has been public knowledge for the past six years, I find little evidence of creative public engagement by the Selectboard in the matters of decision making for natural gas in Bristol,” he wrote.
Before the public was invited to comment, however, selectboard member Ted Lylis introduced a motion pledging the selectboard’s signatures on the license agreement, which was seconded by John “Peeker” Heffernan.
“I can say without fear of contradiction that 4 out of 5 residents that I talk to, converse with on the telephone, or correspond with on the Internet or through social media request, or even occasionally demand, that the selectboard permit Vermont Gas to provide our town with natural gas,” Lylis said in a prepared statement.
When asked to whom the board would be pledging its signatures, Lylis said, “Vermont Gas.” When asked about the total number of people he’d spoken with, he said he wasn’t sure, “but more people than are in here.” When pressed further, he said he wasn’t going to be “pinned down” by any number.
If support was so overwhelming, Bristol resident Jan Ball wanted to know, then why did the selectboard refuse to allow residents to vote on the issue?
On April 2 the board unanimously rejected a petition with more than 200 signatures asking for a townwide vote on the pipeline, far more than 5 percent of the town’s registered voters, according to town administrator Valerie Capels. But during discussion Monday night Lylis and Bouvier dismissed that petition, citing knowledge of residents who had signed it just to get the petitioners off their porch.
Residents Sally Burrell and Rebecca Kodis, however, said they believed 80 to 90 percent of the parties to that petition, whose signatures they were able to “collect quickly,” were fervently opposed to the pipeline.
Over and over, opponents questioned selectboard members on their refusal to allow a vote and called on them to “press pause” on the proposed license agreement with VGS, especially in light of a pending investigation by the Public Utility Commission into potential oversights and failures during recent gas pipeline construction.
Peg Kamens pointed to the March 26 decision by the Monkton selectboard to support a motion residents Jane and Nate Palmer had filed with the Vermont Public Utility Commission to hold off on issuing to VGS a certificate of public good for a regulation station and distribution line in the town.
“What’s the rush?” Kamens asked the Bristol selectboard. “Because the pipeline’s going to be held up anyway, why wouldn’t it be a good idea to have, say, a public forum?”
Albinson asked the board to address his letter and wanted to know why the three major town committees were not involved in the process.
Bouvier said he’d asked the Energy Committee in March 2013 to survey residents about their interest in signing up for natural gas service.
 “We thought we were getting [natural gas] in 2015 or ’16, so I said, ‘Let’s ask for a survey.’ And where that went, or was it even done … I don’t believe it was done.”
That request was never received, said Bob Donnis, who had been chair of the committee at the time.
“I’m not here to debate that,” Bouvier said.
“I think it’s important to debate that,” Albinson said. “That’s where the breakdown has happened. It’s not up to the Energy Committee to look at your minutes or to watch the video to see what you talk about, and then investigate things. The selectboard is supposed to charge these committees.”
“I don’t know what happened,” Bouvier said. “But I did ask.”
When a resident asked Bouvier if he’d still like the survey done, his silence was followed by laughter throughout the room.
“You’re not obligated to go forward,” Jono Chapin told the board. He urged them to “push the pause button” on the process.
“There’s no reason to hit pause,” said Lylis.
But when board member Michelle Perlee introduced a motion to table Lylis’s original motion, Heffernan seconded, and it passed 4-0.
Selectboard members said they would consult with the town attorney before taking any further steps.
Heffernan cautioned that just because he was willing to pause the contract proceedings didn’t mean he anticipated changing his mind about approving the license agreement. He did assure those present, however, that it would not be approved in an executive session.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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