Vermont Gas has started eminent domain proceedings against two landowners in Monkton in order to obtain easements for its natural gas pipeline.
The Addison-Rutland natural gas pipeline is under scrutiny by the Public Service Board due to cost overruns. When first proposed in 2012, the estimated cost for the 43 miles from Colchester to Middlebury was just under $84 million. A new estimate presented to the Public Service Board on January 21st indicates costs are now projected to be over $153 million.
Construction on the pipeline is continuing but the company has not reached agreements with all of the property owners along the route. On Monday, Vermont Gas began eminent domain proceedings against two. Vermont Gas Spokesperson Beth Parent says they have made good progress with most property owners, reaching agreements with about 85 percent with another 10 percent in productive negotiations. “Some landowners during this process have been unresponsive after dozens of attempted contacts by letter, phone and visits. We do have our Certificate of Public Good right now and to maintain our construction schedule and avoid any additional costs the company has to have every single parcel of land. So we began the eminent domain proceedings this week with two landowners who, as I said, have been unresponsive.”
The Certificate of Public Good issued by the Public Service Board gives Vermont Gas the right of eminent domain.
Opponents of the pipeline believe the company may have ulterior motives for pursuing such a land grab when the future of the project is back in the hands of the Public Service Board.
Conservation Law Foundation Senior Attorney Sandra Levine says the eminent domain proceedings appear premature. “With the skyrocketing costs for the project the approval of the project is still in doubt. So for Vermont Gas Systems to be moving forward and seeking eminent domain just seems out of line at this point.”
Just Power is a Vermont group opposed to the pipeline. Member Rebecca Foster believes Vermont Gas is trying to shift the focus away from the Public Service Board proceedings. “We’re entering a period of rigorous reexamination of Phase 1 and Vermont Gas knows they’re in a precarious situation and they’re trying to make the pipeline look inevitable. To me it’s kind-of a Hail Mary pass not withstanding the fact that there’s a very good chance that their permit will be revoked.”
Vermonters for a Clean Environment Executive Director Annette Smith believes the company’s eminent domain proceeding is a strategy to protect the project. “Vermont Gas needs to appear to be moving forward and the more money they spend it’s sort-of like too big to fail. They’ve put so much into it that the Public Service Board would be less inclined to deny it. What should happen right now is that the proceedings should be stayed until the Public Service Board rules on the price increases. But they haven’t stayed the proceeding which means that Vermont Gas can continue to move forward”
While not one of the two landowners facing current eminent domain proceedings, Monkton’s Maren Vasatka was previously threatened by the company. She is appalled that other landowners are again facing such threats. “What it did last time for us because we were negotiating when they threatened eminent domain is it just shut down all the negotiations. We still haven’t settled with them. It was really a detriment. It’s that feeling that somebody’s going to force you to do something whether you like it or not and that they have all the cards. They have the upper hand and it makes you powerless.”
The Public Service Board has scheduled technical hearings on whether to reopen the permit case in June.