Editor’s note: This commentary is by Bill Marks, a member and former chair of the Hinesburg Conservation Commission member since 1990.Beth Parent, spokesperson for Vermont Gas, recently stated in an interview with The Citizen reporter Lauren Milideo that “If it weren’t for this small group (of individuals wishing to stop the project), this project would be in service and residents in Addison County would be able to choose natural gas this heating season.”
I am one of those individuals, and I know, from having been involved in trying to protect Geprags Park from the very beginning (I am both the lead plaintiff for this group and the longest-serving member of the Hinesburg Conservation Commission, which has legal oversight and management responsibilities for the park), that this statement is patently false.
From the moment we, the Conservation Commission, were informed of Vermont Gas’ plans to run a pipeline through Geprags Park (early December 2013), we objected to the location of the proposed easement. Instead of seeking us out then to discuss our objections and the possibility of moving the pipeline to a less environmentally sensitive area within the park, VGS eventually entered into a secret agreement with the town of Hinesburg, through its attorney, in August of 2015, to acquire this easement for a paltry sum of money and with few environmental safeguards.
Had VGS initially entered into an open and proper agreement with the town, the rest may never have happened.
I say this agreement was “secret” because a majority of the town’s selectboard (at least three of its five members) did not even know there was a “vote” to convey this interest in the town’s park. Furthermore, this alleged vote (if it had ever happened — as claimed by the chair of the board) would have been done illegally in executive session. In other words, there was no public record of even the appearance of a legitimate conveyance of the town’s property.
Nevertheless, despite having a large legal team looking out for its interests, VGS never made the most rudimentary and obvious inquiry into the facts and law (and here I’m giving VGS the benefit of the doubt) to determine if the written agreement it entered into with the town was valid and enforceable under the most basic municipal law principles in the state of Vermont. Instead, VGS simply ran with it to the Public Service Board for approval. Fortunately, some residents of Hinesburg were there to object and stop this illegal transaction from happening. Had VGS initially entered into an open and proper agreement with the town, the rest may never have happened.
As it turned out, the surreptitious tactics of certain town officials and VGS angered me, to say the least. Because of my unique position on the Conservation Commission and involvement with Geprags Park, the PSB recognized the importance of my perspective in this controversy and granted me, and several other Hinesburg residents, party status. My position has remained the same thoughout — that is, I am not here to block the pipeline, but simply to protect the interests of Geprags Park to the extent feasible.
Until it became too late to change course, VGS failed to treat the Conservation Commission seriously. Our demands for environmental safeguards have essentially not changed over the last two years. Had VGS dealt with our demands then, they would probably have a working pipeline now. Instead, VGS continued to take the path of least resistance and exclude the Conservation Commission from any direct negotiations.
We are not to blame for VGS’ incompetence and short-sightedness. While I had no strong opinions about this gas pipeline before becoming involved in this controversy, I have since seen, heard and read enough to realize that no one at VGS or in state government is adequately looking out for our welfare and the welfare of our environment.