Vermont Gas offers mediation, moves toward eminent domain

Vermont Gas spokesman Steve Wark points to a map of the company's pipeline extension proposal at a media roundtable in South Burlington on Tuesday. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Vermont Gas spokesman Steve Wark points to a map of the company’s pipeline extension proposal at a media roundtable in South Burlington on Tuesday. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

SOUTH BURLINGTON — Vermont Gas Systems said Tuesday it will exercise its eminent domain rights as soon as this week to secure a path for a natural gas pipeline extension through Addison County.

The natural gas utility said there are about 20 landowners who appear unwilling to sign easement agreements along the company’s 41-mile extension from Colchester to Middlebury, which is underway.

Company spokesman Steve Wark told a media roundtable at the company’s South Burlington headquarters that eminent domain is necessary to keep the project on track for completion by 2015.

The company is offering to pay for a third-party mediator to assist landowners in their negotiations during the eminent domain process, he said. State regulators would determine a price for the property if it is taken through the process of eminent domain.

Wark said the mediator will give landowners another tool to negotiate with the company. He said landowners would likely receive greater compensation for their property through mediation. Wark did not name who the company would hire but said landowners would have a choice among several mediators.

Addison County landowners, from left, Claire Broughton, Selina Peyser, Nancy Menard and Maren Vasatka outline their concerns over Vermont Gas Systems' plan for a natural gas pipeline during a news conference at Vasatka’s home in Monkton Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Addison County landowners, from left, Claire Broughton, Selina Peyser, Nancy Menard and Maren Vasatka outline their concerns over Vermont Gas Systems’ plan for a natural gas pipeline during a news conference at Vasatka’s home in Monkton in February. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Maren Vasatka of Monkton has yet to sign the offer the company made to her family in January. She said a mediator will not help the situation for landowners reluctant to sign agreements.

Instead, Vasatka said the landowners need legal help to better understand the terms of the easement offers. She said many landowners are unsure what rights they are signing away in the agreements, including whether Vermont Gas can clear trees or build roads on their land to access the pipeline’s right-of-way.

“We’ve asked that these easements be clarified so that people who don’t know have the information they need to make the decision,” Vasatka said. “Most of them don’t have legal representation and they don’t have help or anyone asking the right questions.”

She said the most recent offer from Vermont Gas in May did not address her concerns with the right-of-way language. The Department of Public Service said the company has removed a requirement that landowners do not disclose the company’s offers.

Vasatka and other landowners have asked Vermont Gas to pay for legal representation. Vermont Gas has denied this request.

Wark said this would be like the company paying for a lawsuit against the project. He said landowners can instead ask the company to compensate them for legal expenses through negotiation.

Department of Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia said the mediation process will be helpful for landowners.

“This is a necessary consequence of moving forward with the project,” Recchia said. “I think it’s a good step. And I think it’s a helpful tool to have available.”

He said landowners should seek legal advice and ask Vermont Gas to compensate them for any damages associated with the deal.

Wark said there are about 221 private parcels along the pipeline route. He said Vermont Gas has reached agreements with about 70 percent of the parcel owners with an additional 20 percent likely to close. Wark said about 10 percent are unlikely to close regardless of terms.

He said right-of-way land agents have told the company that they can “read the mood” of those landowners. He said those who are unwilling to sign an agreement oppose the project in general, disagree on the monetary offer, or do not trust the company, citing “missteps” the company made in the public outreach process, particularly in the towns of Monkton and Hinesburg.

The Vermont Public Service Board approved the first phase of the company’s pipeline extension in December. The company is therefore allowed to take private property through the process of eminent domain. Landowners can appeal the board’s decision.

The company said it has installed more than 250 miles of pipeline since 2001 without having to use eminent domain.

The company has also applied for a permit to build a pipeline from Middlebury to New York. It has also started planning for the third phase of its planned extension to Rutland.

Update: Vermont Gas spokesman Steve Wark said Wednesday that the company will not file for eminent domain this week.

John HerrickJohn Herrick

Comments

  1. Jason Farrell :

    These landowners have refused to negotiate knowing full well that the potential for their land to be accessed via eminent domain existed since the permitting process began. Instead of negotiating in good faith for a fair price to allow Vermont Gas to access and install this pipeline through their land for the public good, as the company was permitted by Vermont’s Public Service Board to do, they’ve dug in and refuse to budge. That’s left Vermont Gas with no other options to achieve what they’ve been legally permitted to do by Vermont State law. These are some of the very landowners who just last week protested that Vermont Gas can’t be trusted because Vermont Gas’ cost estimate for Phase One has risen. And yet, it’s the landowners continued refusal to negotiate a reasonable price for access that has and will undoubtedly result in current, and future ratepayers having to pay for mediators, legal fees and security protection in order to complete this project. The protesters have tried every tactic available to delay and thwart this project and process, but eminent domain should be used as a last resort, and it appears it will.

    • Maren Vasatka :

      Jason, I am sorry but you are totally wrong.

      My husband and I have negotiated faithfully for almost two years. We have pages and pages of emails and 100’s of hours of meeting time with VGS and it’s representatives.

      My emails tell the story, we waited for VGS to respond to our counter offers for 344 days and they waited for us to respond to their offers for 26 days.

      We are not paid for the time we have spent meeting with them only to have the next easement agreement come through without any of the changes agreed upon.

      I have 100’s of emails asking for updates from them only to be told that I am on their to do list, I am moving up their to do list, I have progressed to a sticky note on their keyboard to could I please resend them the email I sent before because they can’t find it.

      We have had to do their homework for them because they didn’t have answers to simple construction question. They are doing a HDD drill on our property and are allowed to work around the clock. Obviously we are concerned about such loud construction going on overnight 300 feet from our pillows – will they get it done in a day or two will they need to work overnight. We finally two years later find out that the drill if everything goes perfect the first time will take about 70 straight house around the clock. Obviously a couple nights we won’t be sleeping here. At whose expense do we end up in a hotel.

      This is not my perception. Other homeowners have not heard from Vermont gas in 8 months to a year and those that have said Vermont Gas has not raised their price since the first or second offer.

      You live in Vergennes, you name the time and place and I will bring you the multiple 3″ three ring binders of documentation I have. You can see for yourself who is negotiating and who is not.

      And I was not at the protest last week.

      Perhaps you should be careful with your general insults and name calling.

    • Jane Palmer :

      Mr Farrell,
      Unless you are a landowner yourself or have direct experience with the process, you should not comment on whether or not homeowners have negotiated in good faith or not. If you are somehow involved and have not disclosed that information, then I stand corrected. I am an affected landowner and I can tell you that VGS has NOT negotiated with us in good faith. In fact, they have not negotiated with us at all. They have not budged an inch in their plans for our farm and several other homeowners have had similar experiences.

      I am flattered that you think our efforts have been somewhat successful in delaying and causing more costs to this project, but I believe, if you look over the cost increase letter from VGS to the PSB, that the increases with the largest percentages are for project management, construction management, and inspection and “other costs” which include legal costs. Construction took quite a jump as well.
      Anyone who wants to see the budget update VGS filed with the PSB can download it here:
      https://www.dropbox.com/sh/e55cjeu60cr77dz/AADpBFdIoUbIHPNs8iVIsnYfa

      VGS did not disclose these cost overruns until after they received all the permits necessary to start construction. Opposition to the project did not delay those permits. VGS filed the applications late. But it is easy to blame landowners and opposition for the cost increases. How about that $35,000 fine? Who’s fault was that? Granted it is an insignificant sum in the whole scope of things and I would venture to say that this mediator will probably cost them less than that amount.

      This action by VGS is tailor made for people like you who will believe them when they say, “We have tremendous respect for landowners who host public infrastructure.” Or, “Vermont Gas negotiates in good faith with landowners along its routes” Or, “Ultimately, we want to reach a fair and personalized agreement with every landowner and minimize the challenges presented to landowners by the regulatory proceedings.”

      You can believe whatever you want..it’s a free country. But I can tell you that those statements are a bunch of lies and propaganda. Our experience has taught us that VGS is not to be trusted and if we were to trust them with our most valuable asset, we would be fools.

    • Jaime Ciffo :

      I must concur, Jason. It is, in fact, the exact opposite. VGS has absolutely refused to negotiate with landowners for a reasonable price. The delays are their own doing and the added costs and legal fees are the appropriate consequences for doing lousy business.
      And as far as the press is concerned, these landowners are not ‘HOLDOUTS’ as they are referred to. It is a demeaning and disrespectful attempt to vilify the these victims of the undue corporate bullying that they have clearly been subjected to.

      • Jason Farrell :

        It’s demeaning and disrespectful to the legal process that was established by our legislature to define people who have participated in Vermont’s process for this type of development but didn’t get the outcome they’d hoped for as, “victims of the undue corporate bullying”.

        Vermont Gas presented their case for Phase 1 of this project to the PSB. They won the right to construct that section of the pipeline. There are no victims here. just people who appear unwilling to accept the validity of the PSB decision.

        • Maren Vasatka :

          Mr, Farrell, Perhaps you need to learn a little more about the process here. Please open your mind for one minute and listen.

          A flaw with the PSB 248 process is that while they allow a company to take property by eminent domain they have no process to define the easement agreement that company can negotiate.

          So while the CPG is for one 12″ pipe, VGS’s easement says they can change the size of, relocate and add additional pipes. While the CPG has specific work hours VGS wants to be on your property outside those hours doing “other” work. They want us to sign over our easements and wait 10 days to get paid. Never seen that in a real estate transaction in my life and I do them every week. They want to be able to sell all or part of the easement at any time. They want ingress and egress over our property which means they can put a road through our forest to get to the easement and it goes on and on.

          Now add to that they don’t want to take responsibility for anything. They won’t agree to mitigate radon should that be a result of blasting and construction so close to our dwellings. They won’t compensate us for legal fees, they won’t agree to compensate us for any major increases in homeowners insurance because of the pipeline and they don’t care that several mortgage programs won’t write mortgages for properties within 660 feet of a transmission pipeline when most of our houses are under 400′. They don’t want to compensate us for modifying our mortgage deeds which will cost most homeowners 2,000.00 to do and is required in our mortgage deed state. Let’s add to this that they have contaminated a drinking well in Monkton. VGS says if anything happens we are welcome to sue them.

          Furthermore if during construction they find any hazards or old farm dumps on our property no matter how long they have been there that the homeowner is responsible to mitigate it at the homeowners expense.

          All this without even considering the devaluation to our property.

          VGS won’t negotiate these items and they won’t agree to pay for anything.

          So what makes us victims is that this pipeline will ultimately cost us homeowners more in legal, mortgage modifications and homeowners insurance than they are willing to pay us for the easement.

          So I ask you, why should we pay for you to get a cheap fuel for a couple years and for Canadian and New York companies to make millions for ever?

          Aren’t you going to take me up on my offer I made in my last response to you to show you the documentation. Why are all you VGS guys so scared to look at the documentation.

    • Jane Palmer :

      Unless you are a landowner yourself or have direct experience with the process, you should not comment on whether or not homeowners have negotiated in good faith or not. If you are somehow involved and have not disclosed that information, then I stand corrected. I am an affected landowner and I can tell you that VGS has NOT negotiated with us in good faith. In fact, they have not negotiated with us at all. We have invited them here three different times to try to get them to move the route away from infrastructure on our farm. They have not budged an inch in their plans for our farm and several other homeowners have had similar experiences.

      I am flattered that you think our efforts have been somewhat successful in delaying and causing more costs to this project, but I believe, if you look over the cost increase letter from VGS to the PSB, that the increases with the largest percentages are for project management, construction management, and inspection and “other costs” which include legal costs. Construction took quite a jump as well.
      Anyone who wants to see the budget update VGS filed with the PSB can download it here:
      https://www.dropbox.com/sh/e55cjeu60cr77dz/AADpBFdIoUbIHPNs8iVIsnYfa

      VGS did not disclose these cost overruns until after they received all the permits necessary to start construction. Opposition to the project did not delay those permits. VGS filed the applications late. But it is easy to blame landowners and opposition for the cost increases. How about that $35,000 fine? Who’s fault was that? Granted it is an insignificant sum in the whole scope of things but I would venture to say that this mediator will probably cost them less than that amount.

      This action by VGS is tailor made for people like you who will believe them when they say, “We have tremendous respect for landowners who host public infrastructure.” Or, “Vermont Gas negotiates in good faith with landowners along its routes” Or, “Ultimately, we want to reach a fair and personalized agreement with every landowner and minimize the challenges presented to landowners by the regulatory proceedings.”

      You can believe whatever you want..it’s a free country. But I can tell you that those statements are a bunch of lies and propaganda. Our experience has taught us that VGS is not to be trusted and if we were to trust them with our most valuable asset, we would be fools.

  2. Deb Tyson :

    This is crap when a company can steal your land and put on it something you do not want. This is our land and nobody has that right. Get land lawyers, and get rid of our current administration, and get real Vermonters that will change these laws in office. Its election year , push.

    • Margaret Harrington :

      I agree with you, Deb. Also eminent domain has been used since the 1960s across the US for the benefit of corporations and big business and always under the guise of public good.

      • rita troost :

        “Also eminent domain has been used since the 1960s across the US for the benefit of corporations and big business and always under the guise of public good.”

        eminent domain played a big role in getting electricity to your door step, phone service to your house and many of the other services you have come to expect. When public/private utilities deliver a service to the public it is for the public good, if you think thats not the case disconnect from all these services and really make a statement instead of all this talk.

        • Jeff Noordsy :

          Your attempt to compare a project which offers a product to 3000 Vermonters (only half of which will convert) to that of electrification or phone service (which service most or all Vermonters) is specious, at best.

  3. victor ialeggio :

    For both the state and the federal government, a public utility is a business (either publicly or privately owned) which provides an everyday necessity to the public at large.

    I think it can be reasonably argued that exercising the special power of eminent domain under Sec. 1. 12 V.S.A. § 1040 is contingent on the utility satisfying those two requirements: “everyday necessity” and “to the public at large.”

    If an intended project, Phase II, for example, will serve no more than 10% of the public (139 of 1294 households) and if over 99% of the project’s intended delivery is for out-of-state use, then it cannot said either to be providing “an everyday necessity” or to to be doing so to “the public at large.” It is no longer acting as public utility and should therefore forfeit its ability to take private property through eminent domain in support of the project, as any property so taken will necessarily be “…primarily for purposes of economic development…,” explicitly forbidden in Sec. 1. 12 V.S.A. § 1040.

    Questions: what percentage of households within Phase I will be eligible for gas hook-up? who or what will ultimately receive the bulk of Phase I gas delivery? do the answers to these question satisfy the criteria that establish a utility’s right to excersie eminent domain?

    • Maren Vasatka :

      71 percent of the gas going through Phase I is for IP.

      3,000 households in Addison County will be offered gas service in phase I, Addison Counties population is around 37,000 and you have to add Hinesburg south of the village. So I would guess the percentage is easily less than 8%.

    • victor ialeggio :

      sorry–should have included the FERC-iness part of the question.

      Meanwhile, it’s amusing to see Chris Recchia, the current DPS Chair, valiantly flacking, here and elsewhere, for Steve Wark (the official flack for VTGaz) who formerly flacked for the DPS. Flack, flack, flack.

  4. Jeff Noordsy :

    “These landowners have refused to negotiate knowing full well that the potential for their land to be accessed via eminent domain existed since the permitting process began. ”

    Actually, these landowners were made aware of the possibility of eminent domain on the very first day they were contacted by a right of way agent. When one is threatened with eminent domain at the very outset, how can there be a reasonable negotiation?

    The great majority of these landowners have in fact tried to negotiate and they have been stonewalled every step along the way. The gas company is not now nor have they ever negotiated in good faith. It was their choice to wield the threat of eminent domain at the very beginning and the result is the mess we’re in now.

    Blaming the victim is not the answer.

  5. Mark Trigo :

    Victor,

    Fascinating post. Too bad it cites irrelevant law and therefore completely misses the mark.

    The Natural Gas Act governs interstate natural gas pipelines. The Act allows for a federal grant of eminent domain.

    • Jeff Noordsy :

      Actually Mark, it is you that are missing the point. The gas company has applied for a FERC waiver so that the project would be designated as an intrastate pipeline and not an interstate pipeline. Thus, Victor’s point still stands.

      • Mark Trigo :

        I stand corrected. Too many people refuse to admit when they have erred. Not me. I was wrong, and fully own up to that fact. Thank you for the correction.

        • Jeff Noordsy :

          Bravo Mr. Trigo. Not many folks are willing to do that.

          Still, it’s not your fault for making this assumption because it only makes sense. I won’t go into a long winded explanation but let’s just say that the gas company has its reasons to designate what is quite obviously an interstate project as an intrastate one.

          When considering the project beware the claims of the gas company and be ready to suspend sensible thought.

  6. Mark Trigo :

    Jeff,

    The article stated that: “Vermont Gas has reached agreements with about 70 percent of the parcel owners with an additional 20 percent likely to close.”

    And yet you contend that Vermont Gas “is not now nor have they ever negotiated in good faith.” You also state: “The great majority of these landowners have in fact tried to negotiate and they have been stonewalled every step along the way.”

    Apparently 90% of the people actually involved in the negotiations disagree with you. Or do you expect us to believe that a maximum of 10% is a “great majority”?

    • Jeff Noordsy :

      The information is misleading Mark. The gas company does not have agreements with 70% of the landowners. They have agreements in place covering 70% of the distance of the route. Big difference.

      • Jeff Noordsy :

        My above comment MAY be erroneous. It’s so tough to tell with all of the varying information coming from the gas company just what is truth and what is fiction. Kind of the like their ads touting benefits of $720 million one week, $200 million another and then quietly toning that down to a very specific $152 million.

        With that said, I would question any numbers supplied by the gas company equivocated with an “about” – that includes the actual number of landowners who have signed agreements (wouldn’t it be easier to tell us how many?) and those who “may” sign.

        Even the project’s most ardent supporters have learned by now that the gas company does not do a terribly good job of reading the room.

  7. Jane Palmer :

    Mark,
    This project is not presented as interstate. Gaz Metro/Vermont Gas chose to present it in “phases” so as to not be subject to federal oversight. They have even applied for a waiver against having to get FERC approval to go to Ticonderoga NY because they say…it is only to serve one customer so it is a distribution line, not transmission.
    It has been an interesting show watching them argue using a regional plan and then shift and argue using the larger picture. Kind of like having your cake and eating it too.
    But you are correct in assuming this project is not a project for Vermont. The ultimate goal of GM/VGS is to hook up to the national grid.
    But you are incorrect in assuming it is under federal eminent domain laws. State laws will apply.

  8. Remember, all power a company has over you, is power created and granted by Democratic and Republican lawmakers throughout history. Our lawmakers knew Vermont Gas would likely exercise eminent domain, and our lawmakers in the State Legislature did nothing in advance to help protect the property rights of private land owners. Vermonters will benefit by sending a message in November, by voting to remove the old guard.

    What constitutes “necessity” and “public use” anyway?

    In the case of the natural gas pipeline, 99% of the public use made of the natural gas distributed by the proposed pipeline will occur outside Vermont (New York State). So does the State of Vermont have a constitutional duty to necessitate the wants and needs of a New York business entity?

  9. rita troost :

    sooo…….the gas company negotiated with 70 % – 90% of the land owners successfully.
    Seems like it might not be the gas company at fault after all.

    John, you blame the lawmakers and that is popular in our country but remember we elected them and keep electing them so the blame falls on our shoulders.

  10. Kai Mikkel Forlie :

    Why aren’t we talking about the numerous folks who have warmly welcomed this disastrous pipeline onto their property? These are the Vermonters who have shown their true colors by denying reality and throwing their neighbors and their kids (the proverbial “next generation” that few really seem to care about) under the bus.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=c3XpF1MvC8s

    United landowners could have put an end to this obscene project in its opening act. But divided we’re all putty in their hands. And now eminent domain. So much for standing up for your neighbors. What a terrible, terrible shame.

    May the struggle arrive at the doorsteps of all who can’t see past the end of their nose….

    • rita troost :

      The pipe line is disastrous? Based on what?
      Gas is the bridge fuel that is supposed to take us from coal to what ever is next (a mistake in my mind). If we dont bridge the gap people up north will continue heating with fuel oil, or wood. Seems like gas is the best option right now.

      Looks like most land owners are united since 70% – 90% have agreed to having it cross their land. We need to stop letting small groups of radicles decide what is best for our country and state.

      • Jane Palmer :

        Rita,
        I would like to point out that Vermont is not presently addicted to coal. Yes, some use oil and propane, but others are using biomass and other renewable sources. How can you justify a step in the wrong direction as a step forward? The “bridge fuel” analogy is propaganda from the gas companies.

        I wouldn’t use VGS’ figures to make any arguments because they have demonstrated that they aren’t truthful in their estimates. The 70-90 percent figure is not accurate.

        And if you can prove that those that oppose this project are a “small group of radicles [sic] ” I’ll eat my hat.

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