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Eminent Domain Concerns Raised In Pipeline Project

Pipeline - Eminent Domain - revised Northeast Report

Some residents in Vermont say they are being threatened with eminent domain because they are concerned about a gas pipeline that would run through their property.  The utility building the project says while such notices have been sent, eminent domain is a last resort.

Four landowners in Monkton, Vermont were featured in two different newspapers Thursday expressing concerns about Vermont Gas Systems’ plans for a natural gas pipeline that would run across their properties.  Vermont Gas has been working on a plan to expand service to Addison and Rutland Counties. The first phase brings service to the Middlebury area in Addison County. Vermont Gas spokesman Steve Wark says they’ve been negotiating with communities and landowners for about a year and a half .  “Our primary goal is to obtain access to land so that we can use a section of their property. It’s usually a very, very small section. We bury a pipe underneath it as we move from the north to the south in our system. So we’ve been having on-going discussions with landowners for access and then ultimately to buy easements.”

Four landowners that have not reached an agreement with Vermont Gas have received letters threatening eminent domain. Among them is Maren Vasatka, says their letter clearly states the utility will take their land.  “What they say in this letter is ‘We’d like to revisit our proposal with you one more time before Vermont Gas MUST begin the legal process of eminent domain to acquire the easement rights necessary to construct the project.’ ”

Steve Wark explains that the project runs along an existing VELCO electric corridor. The pipeline is 12 inches in diameter and would be buried five feet underground.  “This is a route that has been heavily reviewed and examined by federal and state regulators. We’ve made changes to the route to accommodate landowners and communities. About 72% of the route has been moved based upon those desires. So we really want to be accommodating. There were some changes we couldn’t make because of topography or other design considerations. But there are some folks that we just haven’t been able to reach  agreements with yet.”

Vasatka says her property includes a rare northern white cedar swamp, a bat habitat, wetlands and a deer wintering site.  The utility has been negotiating to do horizontal drilling and trench on her property with unlimited access for two years.  “I want to know what we’re going to do on this property. Who, what, where, when, how and why. We come to that agreement. We sign it and we have it. Now, while they’re working on our property we can’t be anywhere near them. So we have no idea if they are even constructing the project like they’re supposed to. And there are no state inspectors in Vermont. And there are no federal inspectors assigned to this project.”

Wark says the utility, as a government-appointed entity, can use eminent domain if the project is considered for the greater good.  “In this case the greater good is the natural gas expansion project because this is going to help people cut their heating bills by at least half and it’s going to improve air quality.  The process goes through the Public Service Board after we notify landowners. We’re still very hopeful that we’ll be able to reach settlements with everybody. Vermont Gas has never had an eminent domain case in the history of the company. But we need to be realistic as well, and that’s why we’ve notified landowners that this is a possible route that we may end up taking.”

Vermont Law School Professor and Director of the Dispute Resolution Program Sean Nolon notes that the questions often raised regarding eminent domain are whether the land is being taken for appropriate public use, and is compensation adequate.  “Without knowing the details of the pipeline case, what I do know is that because this entity is a utility, they are regulated by a government entity and they are providing a public use to the public. So if the eminent domain was going to occur, it would not be imposed by the private pipeline company it would be imposed through a state entity, in furtherance of that private company’s plans to build a pipeline that was regulated by the state.”

The pipeline project is a three-phase endeavor. The first brings it to Middlebury. The second phase extends it to the Ticonderoga, NY paper mill, and the third ends the pipeline in Rutland.