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Town vote sought on natural gas easement

Vermont Gas has a town waiver that allows it to supply fuel to the Stone Mill Building in Middlebury, but a petitioner wants townspeople to rethink that permission. Independent file photo

“If every time a business owner makes a choice, it is met with a petition causing a delay and town vote, the business environment in Middlebury becomes destabilized.”
— Stacey Rainey and Mary Cullinane

MIDDLEBURY — A Middlebury man has filed a citizens’ petition to force a Nov. 8 community vote on whether to affirm — or overturn — a recent selectboard decision to grant Vermont Gas Systems an easement through town-owned land to serve the Stone Mill building at 3 Mill St.

Ross Conrad — a local beekeeper and member of the Middlebury Energy Committee — gathered more than the requisite 291 signatures (5% of the community’s registered voters) needed to place the referendum on the Nov. 8 General Election ballot.

The referendum won’t earn support from Middlebury selectboard Chair Brian Carpenter, who said that while he’s in favor of the town pivoting to renewable energy, he believes Conrad’s petition is penalizing a specific property owner and risks sending a broader message that the county’s shire town is unfriendly to developers and capital investment.

Conrad, who said he undertook the petition drive as an individual and not on behalf of the Middlebury Energy Committee, said his aim is to discourage the selectboard from facilitating construction of fossil fuel infrastructure at a time when he and like-minded citizens believe the community should be emphasizing renewable energy.

“The idea is to really get people talking and thinking more about whether it makes sense to be installing fossil fuel infrastructure at a time when all the best science indicates we need to be cutting way back and abandoning fossil fuels pretty soon, or things aren’t going to go well for anybody,” Conrad said.

But if the selectboard decides in certain cases that it must authorize future easements through town property for fossil fuel infrastructure, Conrad said the town should at least press for compensation. The town hasn’t requested compensation for individual Vermont Gas easement requests.

“This results in a situation where Middlebury taxpayers are subsidizing VGS business activity,” Conrad said of the consequence.

A market-rate fee for easements, Conrad argued, could “be used to help the town pay for its various fossil fuel reduction and transition efforts. It’s only fair that the companies responsible for pollution are required to help pay the cost of dealing with the problems the pollution causes.”

ROSS CONRAD

The Stone Mill building is owned by Stacey Rainey and Mary Cullinane, partners in a business called Community Barn Ventures. The historic, three-story structure bordering the Otter Creek hosts a combination of retail, lodging, dining and office spaces.

Reached by the Independent, Cullinane and Rainey noted they converted more than 50% of their building from fossil fuel to electric power during a 2019 renovation project.

In a joint statement, they said, “We are committed to ongoing updates and improvements of our day-to-day environmental practices as we demonstrate our investment in this town and our community.”

They also noted their “responsibility to provide a consistent level of service to our customers and do so in a cost-effective manner so that we can continue to operate. If every time a business owner makes a choice, it is met with a petition causing a delay and town vote, the business environment in Middlebury becomes destabilized.”

In the meantime, Rainey and Cullinane said they must field occasional calls during the wee hours when the heat isn’t working. They also worry about their oil tank next to the Otter Creek.

“We pay the property taxes and utility bills,” they said. “The idea that someone external to our business can take away our freedom to choose how we operate is a dangerous deterrent to future investment in Middlebury.”

State statutes — Title 24 § 1061 (2) — stipulates that “If a petition signed by 5% of the legal voters of the municipality objecting to the proposed conveyance is presented to the municipal clerk within 30 days of the date of posting and publication of the notice required by subdivision (1) of this subsection, the legislative body shall cause the question of whether the municipality shall convey the real estate to be considered at a special or annual meeting called for that purpose.”

And this isn’t the first time Conrad has petitioned for a town-wide vote for residents to weigh in on easements the selectboard has conveyed to Vermont Gas. Conrad forced a vote back on Nov. 6, 2017, on three land easements the board had conveyed to the company on June 27, 2017. Those easements were located behind the municipal building and Ilsley library, near Mister Ups Restaurant (off Bakery Lane) and off Mill Street.

Voters in that election affirmed the selectboard’s easement decisions by roughly 60% yes, to 40% no.

Conrad is hoping for a different outcome this time around. He’s banking on a larger voter turnout on Nov. 8 than was the case back in 2017.

“This will be a much better gauge of the residents’ feeling on this issue,” he said. “The last time we did this (in 2017) … only around 1,000 people voted.”

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