Vermont Gas moves ahead with eminent domain against holdouts
SOUTH BURLINGTON -- Vermont Gas Systems said Tuesday it will exercise its eminent domain rights as soon as this week to secure a path for a natural gas pipeline extension through Addison County.
The natural gas utility said there are about 20 landowners who appear unwilling to sign easement agreements along the company's 41-mile extension from Colchester to Middlebury, which is underway.
Company spokesman Steve Wark told a media roundtable at the company's South Burlington headquarters that eminent domain is necessary to keep the project on track for completion by 2015.
The company is offering to pay for a third-party mediator to assist landowners in their negotiations during the eminent domain process, he said. State regulators would determine a price for the property if it is taken through the process of eminent domain.
Wark said the mediator will give landowners another tool to negotiate with the company. He said landowners would likely receive greater compensation for their property through mediation. Wark did not name who the company would hire but said landowners would have a choice among several mediators.
Maren Vasatka of Monkton has yet to sign the offer the company made to her family in January. She said a mediator will not help the situation for landowners reluctant to sign agreements.
Instead, Vasatka said the landowners need legal help to better understand the terms of the easement offers. She said many landowners are unsure what rights they are signing away in the agreements, including whether Vermont Gas can clear trees or build roads on their land to access the pipeline's right-of-way.
"We've asked that these easements be clarified so that people who don't know have the information they need to make the decision," Vasatka said. "Most of them don't have legal representation and they don't have help or anyone asking the right questions."
She said the most recent offer from Vermont Gas in May did not address her concerns with the right-of-way language. The Department of Public Service said the company has removed a requirement that landowners do not disclose the company's offers.
Vasatka and other landowners have asked Vermont Gas to pay for legal representation. Vermont Gas has denied this request.
Wark said this would be like the company paying for a lawsuit against the project. He said landowners can instead ask the company to compensate them for legal expenses through negotiation.
Department of Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia said the mediation process will be helpful for landowners.
"This is a necessary consequence of moving forward with the project," Recchia said. "I think it's a good step. And I think it's a helpful tool to have available."
He said landowners should seek legal advice and ask Vermont Gas to compensate them for any damages associated with the deal.
Wark said there are about 221 private parcels along the pipeline route. He said Vermont Gas has reached agreements with about 70 percent of the parcel owners with an additional 20 percent likely to close. Wark said about 10 percent are unlikely to close regardless of terms.
He said right-of-way land agents have told the company that they can "read the mood" of those landowners. He said those who are unwilling to sign an agreement oppose the project in general, disagree on the monetary offer, or do not trust the company, citing "missteps" the company made in the public outreach process, particularly in the towns of Monkton and Hinesburg.
The Vermont Public Service Board approved the first phase of the company's pipeline extension in December. The company is therefore allowed to take private property through the process of eminent domain. Landowners can appeal the board's decision.
The company said it has installed more than 250 miles of pipeline since 2001 without having to use eminent domain.
The company has also applied for a permit to build a pipeline from Middlebury to New York. It has also started planning for the third phase of its planned extension to Rutland.
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