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.

Maren Vasatka, 52, of Monkton received a similar letter offering $42,500 to use her land, of which $12,500 is contingent upon 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.

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.

Wark 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."