Vermont Gas says it could use eminent domain against right-of-way holdouts

Vermont Gas Systems is informing landowners along the route of a proposed natural gas pipeline in Monkton that they can accept the company’s right-of-way offers or receive thousands of dollars less through the eminent domain process.

In a Jan. 17 letter, a Vermont Gas’ right-of-way agent offered one Monkton couple $20,000 to allow the company to build a 50-foot wide, 900-foot long section of the pipeline.

The land agent cautioned that if Gerald and Nancy Menard did not accept the deal, the company could take the section of land through eminent domain and pay fair market value for the strip, which was appraised at $245 in an attached report.

At least a dozen Monkton residents have yet to sign easements, one landowner estimated.

“Those who signed early, we have provided incentives. As time progresses, I think it will be less likely to provide those incentives,” said Steve Wark, a spokesman for Vermont Gas.

Wark said the company, which he says has never taken property through eminent domain, has been offering above-market-value easement settlements in order to avoid the process of eminent domain.

“We want to be good neighbors, and part of that is paying people fairly the value of their property,” he said.

When Vermont Gas first announced its 41-mile pipeline expansion down the western side of the state, many landowners dismissed the possibility that the project would materialize.

But now, state regulators have approved the first phase of the pipeline expansion that will connect Colchester to Middlebury with a 12-inch transmission main line to be buried 5-feet below ground.

With construction set to begin as soon as this summer, landowners must either accept the company’s easement offers or face having their land taken through eminent domain for a fraction of the price.

Jane Palmer, 59, of North Ferrisburgh is an outspoken opponent of the pipeline expansion.

“A lot of people have just ignored this and thought that maybe it just won’t happen,” Palmer said. “And now people are coming out of the woodworks.”

Jane Palmer and her husband, Nathan, own a 77-acre organic farm with rich clay soil, fields and pasture. The proposed pipeline route, which passes less than 200 feet from their home, cuts directly through their farm.

Palmer’s land includes a two-acre garden, an orchard and a pond – all of which will sit adjacent to a protected wetland. Vermont Gas has not offered them a price for the land, she said.

“Our farm is everything to us,” Palmer said. “Every penny we have, we put into that place. And if this goes through, it’s going to seriously devalue it.”

For now, the Palmer’s plan to expand their organic garden on their 18-year-old farm is on hold.

Maren Vasatka, 52, of Monkton received the same letter from Vermont Gas’ right-of-way agent offering $42,500 to use her land, of which $12,500 is contingent upon a signing a release from damages while the pipeline is constructed, she said.

She said the company’s first offer was $2,500. The most recent letter did not include an eminent domain estimate.

Vasatka has spent the past 15 years putting “blood, sweat and tears” into her home, she said. Now, she says she is being pressed to host a 50-foot wide permanent easement extending 500 feet in length.

“We really have no option. It’s a really scary place to be in,” she said. “How do you negotiate when they threaten eminent domain? I don’t even know what to do at this point. So, that’s the way we are all feeling.”

The company also wants to use her land as temporary workspace during the initial construction phase without providing any details, including a timeline.

Vasatka, who often works at home, wants to know who will be contracted to work on the project and how long the workers will be on her land. She’s particularly concerned given a recent WCAX story involving the arrest of alleged meth dealers who worked on Vermont Gas’ pipeline in Franklin County.

Vasatka has contacted the Public Service Department, which represents ratepayers, the regional planning commission and the Attorney General’s Office. The only remaining option is to either accept the offer or engage the company in a costly court battle.

“There is no place for us to get any help other than expending money that we may never get back,” she said.

Vermont Gas will not cover the cost for landowners to appeal the eminent domain process, Wark said.

He said the company has adjusted more than three-quarters of the pipeline’s original route, dodging properties and valuable land assets.

Vermont Gas said it has worked with the town of Monkton to move the pipeline off the roadway and onto the VELCO transmission line corridor and signed and memorandum of understanding to keep the pipeline 300 feet away from landowners’ homes when possible.

The company has reached easement agreements for 52 percent of the pipeline’s distance, Wark said.

Despite offering landowners “generous” easement settlements, “This is not a blank check situation,” he said. “Ultimately customers and ratepayers pay for that.”

John Herrick

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