Vermont Gas accused of violating pact with family in pipeline path

Vermont Gas
The Vermont Gas pipeline route has been cleared through the former Cuneo family property in Williston, with their home in the background. Photo by Morgan True/VTDigger

WILLISTON — The attorney for a family who settled with Vermont Gas Systems to avoid having their land taken by eminent domain says the utility violated that agreement last week by starting construction-related activities without giving proper notice.

James Dumont represents a number of people with property on the Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project pipeline route. His clients Terence and Kari Cuneo reached a settlement to sell their Williston property to Vermont Gas earlier this year.

The deal allowed the family to stay in their home but contained a notification provision that was supposed to give them time to leave and stay elsewhere while construction is completed. The agreement also allows them to return after construction while they search for a new home.

The occupancy agreement says the Cuneos would be given 48 hours’ notice of any preconstruction work, which is defined in the agreement as “surveying, rock-probing, geotechnical boring, tree clearing, staking for (right of way) delineation, and other activities to prepare for construction.”

It also states that notice would be required for the use of any heavy vehicles “greater than the mass of a standard pickup truck” and that notice was to be provided by phone call and email to them and their attorney.

No construction was supposed to happen before Saturday, according to the agreement. The agreement was intended to ensure the safety of the family, because one of the Cuneos’ children walks to school across the pipeline route, Dumont said.

Vermont Gas
Heavy construction equipment has been on the Cuneo property in Williston. Photo courtesy of Kari Cuneo

That’s why it came as an unwelcome surprise Thursday when a bulldozer and excavator were brought onto the property, digging out and flattening the pipeline route and leaving earth piled to one side, according to Dumont.

Vermont Gas spokeswoman Beth Parent said the company had met its obligations. “This landowner is opposed to the project. We go to great lengths to make sure each and every landowner is respected, even when we disagree. We gave a two-week notice for preconstruction. We own this property and have met the requirements of our agreement,” Parent said in an email.

A phone call to Kari Cuneo was not returned Friday. Dumont said his clients’ opposition to the pipeline is well-known, but that raising their opposition in this context is an ad hominem attack to distract from Vermont Gas having violated the agreement.

Parent said the company called the Cuneos two weeks ago to notify them about preconstruction activities. A printed notice with similar information was left June 3, she said.

Dumont said his clients don’t recall receiving a printed notice. They also claim they did not receive a call from Vermont Gas about the preconstruction activities. Neither Dumont nor his clients received an email as required by the agreement, he said.

“The purpose of the emails is to avoid a he-said-she-said situation,” Dumont said in an interview Friday.

In addition, he questioned whether the work with heavy construction equipment that occurred Thursday meets the agreement’s definition of preconstruction activities.

Instead, he argues that Vermont Gas wanted to avoid having to cross nearby roads with heavy equipment multiple times to reach the portion of the pipeline route that crosses through the Cuneos’ neighborhood.

“They’re a big company and they feel like they can run over little people, so they did it,” Dumont said.

The pipeline project received a certificate of public good from state regulators in 2013, but it has drawn dogged protest from environmental activists who oppose the further expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure.

Dumont also represents a group of Hinesburg residents who were recently granted party status in eminent domain proceedings through which Vermont Gas hopes to obtain a right of way through a municipal park.

Vermont Gas officials say delays from disruptive protests and in securing rights of way could delay a project that was expected to be completed this fall, placing serious time pressures on the summer construction season.

That could also increase the cost of the project, which has already ballooned from $86 million to $154 million. A revised agreement with state regulators allows Vermont Gas to pass along to ratepayers only $134 million of its costs, except for those incurred due to disruptions or delays securing rights of way that go beyond the cap amount.

Construction of the pipeline through the Cuneos’ neighborhood off Lincoln Road in Williston was expected to begin this weekend or early this week, Dumont said.

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  • Bobbie Carnwath

    It would be helpful if Ms Parent, as spokesperson for VGS, would speak to the issue here, which is not whether the former landowners favor of the pipeline project, or even whether they were treated with respect, but whether VGS has breached their contract with the Cuneos. The photo that accompanies the article shows tracks that were obviously made by a vehicle larger than a pickup truck, and thereby not in compliance with the terms of the agreement that the Cuneos’ attorney says were accepted in the face of eminent domain. The question is not whether VGS respects Vermonters whose homes get in their way, but whether this corporation has any respect for law.

    • Robert Spottswood

      Excellent point, BC. Her distracting petro-babble may reflect the fact that any VGS spokesperson who discussed the underlying issue of carbon-based infrastructure as simply extending a dead-end road — would lose her livelihood in a nanosecond. She’s as stuck as the landowners, just getting paid to be there and blow smoke.

  • The Vermont Gas parent company is Canadian. I feel there is a cultural collision. Americans, Vermonters, Property Owners. Land of the Free, Home of the Brave. I read this accounting of Big Corporate Bullies with State Backing versus many Little Property Owners who care about their environment with sensible lawyers. Come ask Governor that Shumlin will be
    signing the Solar Sighting Bill S.260 in Middlebury at 2 PM tomorrow at
    the Addison County Regional Planning Commission. Sorry for the late
    notice. S.260 was just passed on Thursday after the legislature came
    back together due to the governor’s veto of bill S.230. today as he signs a bill maybe protecting landowners from the PSB.

    • Annie Stratton

      It may be a cultural collision, but it’s not Canadian vs American. The Canadian uber-corp has done the same kinds of things in Canada, with the same response from landowners. Canadians, like Americans, have formed homeowner associations, hired lawyers, sought both court and legislative relief, The cultural collision is the same old same old: big money corporations against small communities and officials who have an uncertain sense of their obligations.

      • Thank you for clarification of the Gaz Metro bully tactics.

  • This article doesn’t delve into the stress and anguish the Cuneos (and many others!) are enduring because this insane project has been sited through the middle of their lives and their “safe places”. The fact that VGS (Beth Parent, spokesperson) doesn’t acknowledge any of that and the fact that VGS would allow this to happen without having the decency to make SURE the Cuneos were aware of what was to happen and when on the property is so disgusting (and also a violation of contract!), but also modus operandi for VGS. I can’t tell you how many times we heard the phrase “I’m sorry” from VGS…but that was before the project received the certificate of “public” good from the PSB. No apologies now…no sir. No decency here. The Cuneos had the audacity to “oppose” the project. How fitting Parent would emphasize that fact as if it justifies VGS’ action.
    To me, this is par for the course…but that doesn’t make it right. There should be consequences for this infraction.
    Thanks VTDigger for bringing another aspect of the project to the attention of the people of Vermont. Unless you are living in the middle of this mess, it is difficult to know what is really going on and how horrible things really are.

  • Bethany Barry

    I am appalled at the ongoing lies and bullying of Gaz Metro/VGS – it has continued for 4 years now, from the 1st meeting with Don and Eileen, in which they said “if a town doesn’t want us, we won’t come”, and have proceeded to do the exact opposite, with false advertising, hiring out-of-state pipeline welders ( who happened to be meth dealers as well) going outrageously over budget and time, refusing to pay Over Under as their first pipeline contract and being in an ongoing lawsuit with them, lying to towns, dividing communities and families, and hounding Claire Broughton to her early death through their greed-driven, unconscionable acts.This is when an international corporation needs to be held accountable, and not continue its destructive,downwards spiral for Vermont and Vermonters. The Cuneos arrived at an agreement with VGS, and believed that VGS would honor it, and yet again, VGS has done exactly as it wanted, bullying its way through,regardless of the cost to families, wildlife,air, Vermont and our planet. This has been a bad project from its ill-fated start, driven by the Governor, whose hypocrisy is stunning – tell him so today as he signs yet another so-called “Energy Act”. Where is the Vermont of common sense, thrift, integrity and honor,where people treat each other with respect?

  • Nate Palmer

    “We go to great lengths to make sure each and every landowner is respected, even when we disagree. We gave a two-week notice for preconstruction. We own this property and have met the requirements of our agreement,” Beth Parent, spokesperson for VGS said in an email.
    The only reason VGS owns this property is because they forced the Cuneos into selling it. Apparently Beth Parent is Vermont Gas (since she referred to the company as “we”) and she obviously does NOT respect the people affected by this project and she seems to think that just because she says “they” have met the requirements of their agreement, that its true. I am just amazed at what some folks do for money.
    Well at least Parent didn’t say “on time and on budget” again. Now she will start whining about how people like the Cuneos have made the project cost more and the boo boo VGS created at Geprag’s Park in HInesburg is not “their” fault so the ratepayers should pay for all of the dumb stupid things that VGS has done.

  • Beth Thompson

    “We go to great lengths to make sure each and every landowner is respected, even when we disagree.” Oh, Beth Parent, it just ain’t so. Bullying and blurring of the truth have been your employer’s m.o. from the get-go. And this time it’s not a subjective evaluation. If the contract says notify 48 hrs in advance by phone call and e-mail to the property owners and their lawyer, then leaving a paper notification on the doorstep does not follow the contract protocol. Plain and simple. Disrespects the landowners, disrespects their lawyer, disrespects the law. These are simple steps. One wonders how, if VGS can’t follow the simple agreements they make regarding notification, they can manage a gigantic construction project? Oh, that’s right, they can’t, and haven’t, Cost estimates that change from $86 million to $121 million to $154 million, filings of these changes that are strategically timed and obfuscated. “We own this property,” she states, as if property ownership has inherent rights for the owner. I guess that’s true only if you’re a corporation that has the state administration and regulators wrapped around your little finger. (Oh, dear. Sounds like the same problem with the renewables siting bill…) Vermonters need to stand up to this corporate/government abrogation of our rights in every way possible. Don’t wait until it happens to you.

  • Annette Smith

    This project is no longer economic or in the best interests of Vermonters. Time to pull the plug. PSB, you can do it. Please do the right thing for the “public good”.

  • Melanie Peyser

    If the extent to which VGS’ construction teams are (or rather are not) observing speed limits safe driving around schools is any indicator of how VGS defines “respect” landowners and the communities, in which they live, are in for a very, very long and scary summer. Hint: it’s easy to spot VGS construction contractor vehicles: they’re enormous, have out-of-state plates, and are blowing past a sign that says “Welcome to Our Town, Please Drive Safely” or “School, Children at Play.” Of course, not all of the workers are out-of-state and many are actually being respectful and driving safely. But, it only takes a few bad apples to spoil the barrel, and it appears that in this case, there are a lot more than that.

  • My first response: “unbelievable”, eye rolls. Quick second response, this is par for the course with VGS. Up and down the pipeline I’ve heard landowners talk about being deceived and bullied by VSG. It’s not unbelievable, it’s appalling. But I don’t know why they’re in such a hurry to build. This pipeline will be stopped before it’s finished, as more and more people realize the myth of the “bridge fuel” and the insanity of building more fossil fuel infrastructure.

    • Barrie Bailey

      VGS is in such a hurry now that Kinder Morgan pulled the plug on their pipeline from Penn., thru NY state, Mass, and on to the export terminal in the Canadian Maritimes to sell gas to Europe. Now VGS sees its chance to get to the Penn fracked gas terminal in Glens Falls NY and bring it north to that export terminal (ie. big bucks profit),before another company beats them to it.. Its not to give Vermonters cheap gas except to pick up a quick buck with a few industrial contracts along the way by pricing the gas more cheaply for industry and soaking the residential customers.

  • Mary Martin

    On time and on budget, laser focused, it’s all a bunch of malarkey! How many homes has VT Gas had to buy out right because they couldn’t secure a right of way? I cannot imagine that was in the budget and if it was, then their budget is way over inflated.
    VT Gas made an agreement with the Cuneo family and they broke it. I’m laser focused on their actions and I don’t like what I see and how they disrespect Vermonters and their properties. It doesn’t make a lick of difference if the Cuneo’s are opposed to the pipeline or not. They had an agreement and VT Gas broke it and is bullying everyone in their path.
    Stop this madness! Shut it down now before more families get hurt.

  • Maren Vasatka

    Beth Parent may want to brush up on Vermont landlord tenant law. Regardless of what the purchase contract says all landlords must give tenants 48 hours notice before accessing a property. Beth Parent says they own it then she just admitted they broke the law. Sure hope some of the folks on a state level can see through this.