In reversal, Hinesburg residents win right to challenge pipeline

Several Hinesburg residents have been granted legal status to challenge Vermont Gas Systems’ efforts to secure a right of way through a town park using eminent domain.

The right of way is for the controversial Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project pipeline. The project received a state certificate of public good in 2013 but has struggled to secure access to the planned route and attracted disruptive protests from environmental activists who oppose expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure.

Vermont Gas
Demonstrators gather at the Public Service Board building in Montpelier last year. The Vermont Gas pipeline has faced persistent opposition. File photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger

A May 23 order from the Public Service Board reverses an earlier decision denying the residents’ request to intervene in the proceeding.

The residents’ legal challenge, plus another ongoing eminent domain proceeding, have the potential to delay completion of the project, which was expected sometime this year.

“Access to the entire pipeline corridor could certainly impact our schedule and therefore our costs,” said Vermont Gas spokeswoman Beth Parent.

Vermont Gas CEO Don Rendall put a finer point on the impact of the legal challenges in an interview with Vermont Public Radio this week, saying, “There’s no doubt that they will have impact on schedule and cost.”

Rendall was not available to comment Thursday.

The cost of the natural gas pipeline has already ballooned significantly since it received its certificate of public good, growing from $86.6 million to $154 million.

An agreement reached last year between Vermont Gas and the Department of Public Service, which is charged with representing ratepayers before the PSB, caps the costs borne by ratepayers in Franklin, Addison and Chittenden counties at $134 million.

However, the agreement states that Vermont Gas may seek to recoup costs above that cap that result from protests and disruptions or “material delays in rights of way access construction.” Parent said it’s too early for Vermont Gas to consider whether it would try to recover additional costs from ratepayers.

The Public Service Board initially told the Hinesburg residents they would not be allowed to intervene in an eminent domain proceeding where Vermont Gas sought a right of way through Geprags Park.

In his order reversing that decision, hearing officer Michael Tousley writes that the residents demonstrated “substantial interest” in the use and enjoyment of the park that is distinct from the interests of the general public, which would have to be represented by the town of Hinesburg.

Specifically, Tousley cites an affidavit filed by Bill Marks, a member of the Hinesburg Conservation Commission, attesting that he spends “hundreds of hours” in the park, constructing and maintaining hiking trails and making other improvements.

The Hinesburg Selectboard reached an agreement in 2014 with the utility to sell the right of way for $75,000.

That agreement was entered into during executive session and not brought to the notice of the public, in violation of Vermont’s open meeting law. In March, the Selectboard voted to invalidate the agreement and later decided to reject the deal during a public meeting.

Parent, the Vermont Gas spokeswoman, said the company is negotiating a new agreement with the town. The deal includes “significant community investments in areas like land conservation, habitat protection and recreation,” she said. Selectboard Chairman Michael Bissonette did not return a request for comment on those negotiations Thursday.

Jim Dumont, an attorney representing the Hinesburg residents before the Public Service Board, argues in a motion filed on behalf of his clients that eminent domain can’t be used to obtain easements “dedicated to use as a public town park.”

Dumont cites a Vermont Supreme Court ruling from 1928 where the court ruled that land dedicated for one public use could not be taken through eminent domain for a different public use.

Further, Dumont argues that the proposed right of way through the park violates the deed through which Hinesburg acquired the land, which included a “restrictive covenant limiting its use to public recreational and educational use.”

For municipal land with conservation restrictions to be sold or diverted for other uses, Vermont law requires an affirmative vote from residents at a municipality’s annual town meeting.

Dumont suggested that if Hinesburg agrees to a right-of-way easement through the park without a Town Meeting Day vote, his clients are likely to challenge the easement in court.

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  • Mary Martin

    Oh VT Gas, will you never learn? The corporate bullying needs to stop. Once again you tried to sneak your volatile pipeline through a town without following the proper procedures. It may not be technically illegal but it certainly is immoral. We don’t roll that way and we don’t appreciate your slimy tactics.

    The public’s need over corporate greed!

  • Jane Palmer

    There are a lot of understandable omissions of what has transpired in Hinesburg in this piece. But what stands out to me is the statement Don Rendall made above, “There’s no doubt that they will have impact on schedule and cost.” Mr Rendall misspoke. What he should have said is “this” not “they” will have an impact on the schedule and cost. And “this” was entirely another VGS boo boo. VGS has an ARMY of lawyers so I have a hard time understanding how they could have “missed” the open meeting law violation. But regardless of whether it was a mistake or not, they are now trying to throw money at the HInesburg SB and Conservation Committee in order to resolve this obvious and potentially colossal problem. .AND they are attempting to blame those who are just trying to protect the park and follow procedure for making the cost of the project rise. Hmmm. This is so damn familiar.

  • Janice D Stearns

    Thank you for doing the right thing THIS time…PSB, after all the wrong things were exhausted!

  • David Pratt, Vergennes

    Good! The pipeline should be stopped for good, as it is not a wise choice for the future of Vermont, and our country.

    • Thomas Gauthier

      I would say you are financially secure and closer to elderly than not; that being said I am young and have a lot of years left to slave away and build my “American Dream.” Neither I nor any young person will be able to do that without good jobs for blue collar workers such as manufacturing, construction, assembly plants. I currently work as a handyman part time and spend full time hours running the department of corrections gauntlet. I cannot do anymore to fight that oppression. All I can do is advocate for a fiscally viable future For Vermont that uses the states resources for the good of the people not putting first needs of the few landowners who will suffer a significant property value drop. I’m sure if I was in their situation I would not want this to happen but then again, I would be willing and able to see the vision of manufacturing jobs back in Vermont. If everyone worked together to make things happen we would be much better off as a state.

      • Jane Palmer

        I fight this pipe for you and your children. The fallacy that the pipe will create jobs is something the gas company has fabricated. The pipeline will not create jobs it will only serve to make more money for the giant corporations that will not protect your future nor the environment. The notion that we have to choose between an viable economy and the environment and peoples rights is also a lie. I wish I could somehow instill in you all the things I have learned about pipelines and the gas industry because then you would understand why we oppose this project. Unfortunately the gas company and our government have brainwashed many of our young people (but not most!) into believing that we need this pipeline and if it is built it will be the answer to our economic woes. Just the opposite is true.

        • Glenn Thompson

          Jane Palmer,

          “The fallacy that the pipe will create jobs is something the gas company has fabricated. The pipeline will not create jobs it will only serve to make more money for the giant corporations that will not protect your future nor the environment.”

          That comment puzzles me! Is installing a pipeline any different than installing solar panels and wind turbines? Jobs in all case are created…however they only last until the project is completed. I recall last summer when they were running a NG pipeline through Essex Town, what I observed on many occasions as I traveled along Route 289 numerous workers putting in this pipeline. To state jobs weren’t created to build this pipeline would be totally false!

          • Jane Palmer

            Yes the building of the pipeline employs many people. Many of those are out of state pipeliners who go where the pipes are being built. Very short duration jobs. When politicians say the pipeline will create jobs, they are referring to supposed increase in industry and other employers that will either move into the area or will expand because they can save money on energy. Neither of those scenarios has been proven to be the case. Addison County never had methane delivered by pipeline whereas Franklin County has. Addison County is in better financial shape than Franklin County. There has never been a documented uptick in job creation when a pipeline comes to town. And now, with the price difference between oil and gas being so small, the perceived advantages don’t add up. Especially if you consider the cost of the installation of the pipeline and conversion costs . I won’t go into the pros of alternative sustainable energy over building insanely expensive fossil fuel infrastructure…because that argument is obvious. If you don’t see the difference, I guess my time is wasted here.

          • Glenn Thompson

            “Addison County never had methane delivered by pipeline whereas Franklin County has. Addison County is in better financial shape than Franklin County.”

            Franklin County was hurt when two major manufacturing plants (Fonda & Energizer) closed their doors. Trying to make the connection to the NG issue is off base.

        • Thomas Gauthier

          Jane, you may stop fighting this pipeline for me and my children. I would like to see that infastructure put in place to give the option that will attract manufacturing companies that require a fuel source like natural gas in their processes. I live in Bethel home to the former Vermont Castings. That company uses propane to heat their kilns to bake the enamel onto the forged parts from the Randolph foundry. Guess what; Vermont casting enameling plant in bethel is closed and it has since moved to Randolph to consolidate resources. If they had a more finically Viable source to heat their kiln they may have stayed but we will never know. Thank you for fighting the jobs out of our state tooth and nail. I for one do not want to be stuck on the welfare teet of the state but two “violent felony” convictions limit my job outlook significantly. Even with no violence involved in the offenses they are Violent by statute. One offense the girl misrepresented her age and I got the charge and the second because I refused to cooperate with authorities I was indicted for possession of stolen explosives. Both of these cases were from 2008 and 2009 and I still suffer from these and apparently in my most recent move to try and gain disability insurance incase I get hurt because I am self employed due to NO DECENT PAYING JOBS I was denied coverage because of these felonies……. Jane what is left for me to do besides continue or improve my criminalist behavior to survive? Maybe, if there were a solid base of manufacturing jobs in the area I may be able to survive comfortably and live a lawful life. I believe it is you Jane that has been brainwashed into thinking this pipeline is not good for the people. If you think there are jobs but people do not want to work at the available jobs that are either non existent or “dried up” you are wrong. Look at the numbers. Watch Fox News and stop listening to the liberal/democratic lies concerning the economy. Clearly you and Vermont needs a wake up call.

          • Jeff Noordsy

            Let me see if I understand this correctly. The lack of natural gas infrastructure is the root cause of your arrest for stealing dynamite and attempting to trade it for cocaine?


            That’s quite the stretch. We all (liberals and conservatives alike) need to take responsibility for our own actions. I am sorry that you are having difficulty finding employment but it would seem that the problem has more to do with your own decisions than the availability of a specific fuel source.

            I wish you well in the future.

          • Glenn Thompson

            Thomas Gauthier,

            I read your comments with interest. Have you considered finding another location to achieve your dreams? There is life outside of Vermont. Fyi, I split equal time between Az & Vt. Propane in Vermont is extremely expensive. All I have to do is look at my son’s Propane bills. NG prices in Arizona are a fraction of the cost of Propane.

            My entire community in Az. is hooked up to Natural Gas. Most of the metropolitan areas of Phoenix and Tucson are hooked up to NG. Both Tucson and especially Phoenix is rapidly growing in population growth and development. When new development goes in, the NG infrastructure is expanded out to supply the new developments which includes residential, commercial, and industrial.

            Final comment. For economic growth to occur and satisfy the needs of businesses, families, and individuals, the infrastructure needs to be in place or at least guaranteed to be in place and supplied at reasonable prices….or the development will never happen.

  • Kim Hebert

    Britain commercialize the use of natural gas around 1785 and the natural gas industry has existed in this country for more than 150 years. Solar panels and wind turbines are unsightly and the list of things to protest are endless. I love this about Vermont but I am concerned our quest for perfection will not be achieved anytime soon.