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Bristol selectboard withdraws from gas agreement

BRISTOL — It’s official.
Bristol will not get natural gas service anytime soon — if ever.
As a dozen members of the public looked on, the Bristol selectboard voted 2–1 Monday night to rescind a July 23, 2018, license agreement with Vermont Gas Systems (VGS), which would have brought natural gas service to some parts of the town.
“Given how much we’ve spent on legal fees already, this isn’t fair to taxpayers,” said selectboard member Peter Coffey, who chaired the board last year. “This could turn into tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. I’m not willing to go there.”
In August, almost immediately after the license agreement was signed, 37 Bristol residents filed a suit against the town and VGS, insisting the contract violated their right to hold a townwide vote on the installation of gas lines in public highway rights-of-way.
Both the town of Bristol and VGS filed motions to dismiss the suit, but on Jan. 28, the judge ruled the suit could proceed.
At Monday night’s selectboard meeting, Coffey revealed that he and Bristol Town Administrator Valerie Capels had met with VGS President Don Rendall and the VP of Customers and Communities Tom Murray to discuss the situation.
The date of that meeting was Nov. 7, 2018.
At that time, according to Coffey, Rendall and Murray suggested that the town rescind the license agreement.
“I think they’re looking at it from a business perspective and what it would cost them to go through the Act 250 process, which they know is going to get appealed at every level,” Coffey said Monday night. “They’re going to spend a lot of money, and it’s just not a productive thing right now.”
Because discussion at the Nov. 7 meeting pertained to active litigation, Bristol officials did not feel they could act on it until they had received the court’s decision about their motion to dismiss, Capels told the Independent in an email.
By the time the judge had rejected their motion in late January, town meeting preparations were under way, so the selectboard opted to hold off on publicly discussing the license agreement until Monday night.
In spite of the setback, VGS was upbeat.
“We’re still hoping to find innovative ways to bring natural gas service to Bristol,” said company spokesperson Beth Parent.
She did confirm that the pending lawsuit contributed directly to VGS’s desire to withdraw from the license agreement.
Jim Dumont, the attorney representing the 37 plaintiffs, viewed the development as a victory, but suggested that it was the beginning, rather than the end, of a larger story.
“All over New England, New York and the rest of the country, the public is learning that natural gas is much worse than oil for dealing with our climate crisis,” Dumont told the Independent. “Faced with an alternative, no reasonable person would choose natural gas.”
Plus, he added, with other fuel sources “there’s no risk of your house blowing up.”
Six months ago, one person was killed and 21 others injured when a series of natural gas explosions rocked Lawrence, Mass., and nearby towns. Five houses were destroyed and 131 structures were damaged, according to a report issued by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Bristol’s selectboard vote now renders the lawsuit moot, Dumont said.
The decision comes just weeks before dozens — potentially hundreds — of climate activists are scheduled to arrive in Bristol as part of the Next Steps Climate Solutions walk organized by 350 Vermont.
The walk, which will take place over five days, will begin in Middlebury April 5 and stop in Bristol, Hinesburg, Richmond and Middlesex, before ending on April 9 in Montpelier.
“Originally, one of the reasons we decided to include Bristol in this walk was the active pipeline question,” said 350 director Maeve McBride. “We’ve been working with organizations, activists and residents in Bristol who see a green vision for their town and don’t want natural gas there.”
When a few Bristol residents initially considered suing the town last summer, 350 Vermont spread the word through its network of activists, which inspired more residents to join the suit.
Though the Next Steps itinerary will stay the same, this latest development changes the tone of the march, McBride said.
“The focus of this walk has always been about storytelling around the gas pipeline. In Bristol, that story is now a celebratory story, reflecting the power of grassroots organizing to effect change in communities.”
It’s a story that’s gaining traction statewide.
Over the last two years, 55 Vermont towns have passed Climate Solution Resolutions on Town Meeting Day, calling for towns to work on local solutions to reduce CO2 emissions, improve efficiency and transition away from fossil fuels.
“Climate change is one of the greatest problems humankind has ever faced,” said 350 board member Christine Hallquist at a press conference earlier this month. “The very existence of civilization is threatened. We can change this course by moving to an energy supply that is 100 percent renewable, 100 percent of the time. Saving the planet has also created the greatest business opportunity humankind has ever faced. An opportunity for new jobs, improved technology and innovation. I am optimistic we will solve this problem. In doing so, nations will have to learn to collaborate versus compete.”
Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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