Utility, environmentalists spar over Lincoln forest

LINCOLN — A deal that should have ben a win-win-win for a pair of utilities, their customers and the environment has fallen through.
Waitsfield & Champlain Valley Telecom (WCTV) has withdrawn from an agreement that would have relocated utility lines from a protected woodland to the roadside in Lincoln, buried new fiber optic cable through the forest and preserved scenic views of Mount Abraham. The agreement fell through even after the Lincoln selectboard approved the deal and the Vermont Family Forests Foundation (VFF) offered to pick up some of the tab.
“At the very last minute, WCTV suggested they did not want to be pinned down to implementing their project as they designed it,” said David Brynn, executive director of VFF, which owns some of the land.
The principal parties had hoped to finalize the deal in 2018, but on Dec. 17 WCTV proposed to double the project’s right-of-way and remove limits on the number of poles it could install.
“It was a surprise to us,” Brynn said. “It was almost impossible to deal with.”
VFF owns the 165-acre Anderson Fred Pierce Property located on Isham Hollow and Colby Hill roads in Lincoln. The land is “protected property,” part of the Colby Hill Ecological Project and subject to a “forever wild” conservation easement held by the Northeast Wilderness Trust.
VFF pays full taxes on the property and allows hunting there.
In June 2018 WCTV and Green Mountain Power approached VFF with a proposal to add fiber optic cable to GMP’s existing electric power lines and for GMP to eventually upgrade those lines.
The telecom company wants to create a more accessible utility line, said Lee Cheney, vice president of network operations at WCTV.
VFF proposed an alternative: move existing aerial electric lines out of the forest and bury some of the new fiber optic lines.
Not only would this reduce environmental fragmentation but it would also make it easier and cheaper for utility companies to respond to destructive weather, such as the windstorm in October 2017 that knocked out power to tens of thousands of Vermonters and caused millions of dollars in damage.
The revised plan would also protect the view.
“It’s a spectacular view,” Brynn said. “People stop there every season to snap photos of Mount Abraham.”
VFF agreed to pay $11,427 to bury WCTV’s fiber optic cable and an estimated $32,000 to bury some of GMP’s electric transmission lines.
The Lincoln selectboard approved the alternative plan in September.
After VFF made its case to the Northeast Wilderness Trust (NWT) the following month, the Trust approved a limited easement to WCTV so the project could go forward.
“NWT feels that moving the power lines and burying the cable is a net positive, but it needs to be done in a way that does not lead to future impairment of the land,” said Shelby Perry, stewardship director at NWT.
Perry acknowledged that this might not be what utility companies are used to dealing with, however.
“Utility companies’ general practice is to get a right of way without restrictions,” she said. “This one has restrictions.”
According to WCTV, because the company is bound by state and federal regulations it can’t negotiate away rights of access when they have been legally deemed to be in the public interest.
“Any relocation must not impair WCTV’s ability to meet its regulatory obligations,” said Lee Cheney, vice president of network operations at the company.
VFF will not grant an easement for additional rights of way and more poles, Brynn said, but the foundation remains committed to the project’s success.
“We have spent several thousand dollars on legal fees and spent countless hours working to make this happen in a way that supports WCTV and our conservation easement,” he said. “We are not standing in the way of fiber. We are standing up for the re-wilding of habitat on our lands and we are standing up to protect one of the most beautiful views in the town of Lincoln.”
WCTV, however, has called it quits.
“At this time, WCVT has concluded that the best course is to discontinue efforts to construct a new line of utility poles along Isham Hollow Road in Lincoln,” Cheney told the Independent Wednesday. “Although the existing pole line through the woods poses some minor concerns about accessibility, WCVT believes the access rights granted in the (existing) easements are best suited to allowing WCVT to carry out its public service obligations.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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