MONKTON - The Shumlin administration has stepped in to soothe contentious right-of-way negotiations between Vermont Gas Systems and a group of Monkton landowners.
Vermont Gas recently sent letters to several landowners along its proposed natural gas pipeline extension stating that land will be taken by eminent domain easement agreements aren't negotiated. On Thursday evening, state officials assured residents the rhetoric would be toned down.
"We're not happy with that process. They are going to restart that process," Public Service Department Commissioner Chris Recchia told the group.
Vermont Gas plans to break ground on a 41-mile, $86 million pipeline from Colchester to Middlebury this year. The Public Service Board, the state's utility regulator, approved the project last year.
The company hired Clough Harbor Associates of Albany, N.Y., to negotiate deals with landowners. The firm's land agents sent letters to several property owners with easement offers to point out Vermont Gas' right to take the land through eminent domain if they did not negotiate the offer.
Vermont Gas said it has secured easement agreements for more than 50 percent of the pipeline. State officials are asking the company to directly negotiate the remaining easement agreements with landowners.
"I think their land agents have been a problem. The letters that went out I think were disconcerting to people," Recchia said. "I ... did not read them as constructive, to be honest with you."
He said the department will work with Vermont Gas to add clarity to its easement offers.
Vermont Gas said existing easement agreements will remain unchanged but it will use in-house land agents at landowners' request, according to Steve Wark, a spokesman for Vermont Gas.
"I don't know how much that will change the dynamic, but if it's helpful, it makes sense for us to do that," Wark said in an interview Friday. He said the company will "continue to negotiate in good faith."
At Thursday's meeting, some landowners questioned how the department's recommendation will change the process. The landowners want to see a baseline easement agreement for all residents, full disclosure of the company's offers and fair compensation for the risks associated with hosting a pipeline.
Some residents want to be compensated for legal fees if they enter into the process of eminent domain.
Vermont Gas said it will not put up money for a legal fund for landowners to challenge the company in eminent domain proceedings. The company has paid $2,000 to fund a workshop designed to inform landowners on how to negotiate an easement with the company, Wark said.