“The condemnation of the easement is reasonably necessary to enable the company to render adequate service to the public,” the Public Service Board said in its order granting the easement.
The board said its ruling would end economic suffering Vermonters had experienced as a result of the pipeline’s unavailability. The company has said it intends to complete the pipeline extension to Addison County and have it serving customers by year’s end.
The necessity of providing natural gas to these customers couldn’t otherwise be met, the board said, because other routes would increase the project’s cost and effort, and because nearly the entire pipe was already laid under the assumption it would go through the park.
A route other than through Geprags Park, the board reasoned, “would introduce the risk of further delay in completing the construction of the pipeline extension in Chittenden and Addison counties, where Vermonters have been incurring the economic costs of waiting for natural gas service since December of 2013.”
Foes of the project say they plan to appeal the Public Service Board’s decision.
Vermont Gas representatives welcomed the board’s order.
“This is great news for customers and great news for Vermont’s economy,” CEO Don Rendall said in a statement Tuesday evening. “Project opponents should respect this ruling and allow Vermont Gas to proceed.”
“It is time to finish this important clean energy project so that the thousands of families and businesses in Addison County can have access to cleaner, more affordable natural gas,” Rendall said.
Gaining this easement — which Hinesburg town officials initially negotiated behind closed doors in 2014 — proved a significant hurdle.
Town leaders could not simply grant Vermont Gas the easement because of the conditions the park’s donors placed on the land, the board said.
Town officials, in a deal with Vermont Gas, ultimately agreed not to oppose the eminent domain proceeding in exchange for $250,000. The agreement also calls for pipeline access for certain low-income Hinesburg homes, a provision the company valued at nearly $500,000.
Led by Bristol-based attorney Jim Dumont, several pipeline opponents have argued to the PSB that Vermont law doesn’t allow a pipeline easement through the park, because the land was given to the town on the condition it be used only for education and recreation.
Opponents said Tuesday’s outcome was never seriously in question.
“We expected all along for the easement to be granted, and then go through several steps and take it to the Supreme Court and appeal it there,” said Hinesburg resident Rachel Smolker, whom Dumont represents. “Assuming it still makes sense, that’s probably what we’ll end up doing.”
Dumont said he will first ask the board to reconsider, which he and his clients have 10 days to do. He declined to comment further because he considers the decision to be still pending before the board.
Smolker said pipeline neighbors worry about safety. Recently the Public Service Department requested Vermont Gas be fined $150,000 for failing to properly deal with electrical current created by the pipeline’s proximity to high-power Vermont Electric Co-op lines.
The pipeline has drawn controversy for various other reasons as well.
Its cost has almost doubled since it first won approval from the Public Service Board in 2013 with an estimated price of $86 million.
Vermont Gas told the board last month that the total cost of the project would go up a fourth time to $165 million. The 50,000 existing ratepayers in Franklin and Chittenden counties and 4,000 new ratepayers in Addison will be on the hook for $134 million of the project cost, according to an agreement between Vermont Gas and the Department of Public Service.
The PSB is considering whether an increase in the project’s cost constitutes a “significant change” for the purposes of its permit.
The pipeline has engendered stubborn opposition from protesters, who have sought to halt work by sitting in trees and locking themselves to heavy machinery, disrupted Public Service Board hearings and prevented property assessments at other locations along the pipeline’s route.
Another instance occurred Tuesday. State police said about 50 protesters went on private property in New Haven and surrounded excavating equipment.
Twelve protesters were arrested on trespassing charges after they declined to leave when asked, police said. One was also arrested on a charge of resisting arrest, according to police.
Police said the protest delayed the project for about 3½ hours.
The 12-inch-diameter pipeline will cross through the park in Hinesburg at a depth of 30 to 50 feet, laid using horizontal drilling. The easement extends 1,987 feet, running north to south along the park’s western edge, and with a width of 50 feet. The entire easement area covers 2.3 acres.