Respecting landowners during pipeline acquisition

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By Eileen Simollardes

There is no doubt that the Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project will strengthen our economy, help retain and create jobs by cutting heating bills by 40 to 50 percent and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions – advantages that help Vermont transition toward a cleaner and more affordable energy future. However, one of the most challenging elements of all public infrastructure projects is their impact on landowners.

Vermont Gas has tremendous respect for landowners who host public infrastructure of all types – roads, sidewalks, and water, sewer, electric and natural gas lines, for example. We always want to reach a fair and personalized agreement with every landowner and minimize the challenges presented to landowners by the regulatory proceedings. The 135 Vermonters who make up Vermont Gas all want to be good neighbors and good stewards as we have been in Chittenden and Franklin Counties for 50 years. Since 2001 Vermont Gas has installed over 250 miles of distribution and transmission pipeline and never had to use eminent domain for any of these new installations.

For the current phase of the Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project, a collaborative route finding process was utilized to minimize both environmental and landowner impacts. Significant portions of the route were located in existing transportation and utility corridors. We also adjusted significant portions of the route in response to community and landowner input. In several communities we moved the route into a pre-existing electric utility area in order to minimize disruptions and inconvenience.

We’ve worked for many months to reach consensus agreements with landowners. Of the 220 properties along the route, we have reached agreements with almost 70 percent of the landowners and are involved in productive negotiations with another 20 percent. There are 10 percent — about 20 landowners — who we have not been able to reach agreements with. This is unfortunate, but not uncommon in large public infrastructure projects.

Recently, Vermont Gas announced we would offer and fund neutral, third party mediation for landowners where our conversations have stalled. Mediation is a time-tested and proven means of settling disagreements. Landowners will be able to choose from a list of qualified mediators who will have discretion is establishing the framework and ground rules for the mediation process. Inviting these landowners to participate in neutral mediation and offering an alternative to a fully litigated resolution is one way for Vermont Gas to show we understand this is a challenging process for some landowners.

To maintain the schedule necessary to deliver the 4,000 residents and business of Addison County the savings and reduced greenhouse gas emissions the project can provide, we must proceed with the regulatory process. This means Vermont Gas will have to initiate eminent domain proceedings for this small number of landowners, but landowners will be offered neutral, third-party mediation to hopefully minimize the full process.

While we will have to keep the project moving forward, we hope this new, neutral mediation option will result in agreements that ultimately eliminate the need for the full eminent domain process.

The 41-mile natural gas system from Colchester to Middlebury can cut energy bills in half and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 25 percent for 4,000 residents and businesses in Addison County. Ultimately, we hope to extend these benefits to over 16,500 additional homeowners and employers in Addison and Rutland counties.

As we move forward, we will redouble our efforts to demonstrate our tremendous respect for the landowners who host the public infrastructure essential to a stronger economy and a cleaner, healthier environment.

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Eileen Simollardes is Vice President of Expansion at Vermont Gas.