CORNWALL — Vermont Gas Services Inc. on Friday unveiled a natural gas pipeline route through Cornwall that it believes will comply with the community’s town plan and setback requirements while creating taxable infrastructure. Company officials said the pipeline would pour an estimated $240,000 into the municipal coffers during its first year of operation while allowing a limited number of local tie-ins.
The new map, released at a meeting of the Multi-Town Working Group, which includes representatives from Cornwall, Middlebury and Shoreham, also has implications in Middlebury and Shoreham, which VGS is expected to discuss at meetings in those communities next month.
Release of the proposed route (see map on Page 39) followed a May 21 Cornwall selectboard meeting at which Vermont Gas CEO Don Gilbert offered to extend natural gas service to 60-70 homes in the Cornwall village area as part of a pipeline project that was originally devised with one major corporate client in mind: International Paper Co. in Ticonderoga, N.Y. Cornwall and Shoreham were originally envisioned by Vermont Gas to be pass-through communities for a pipeline segment that would run from Middlebury, through Cornwall and Shoreham, under Lake Champlain to the IP mill.
Vermont Gas officials will present further details of their plans at a community meeting tentatively scheduled for Wednesday, June 5, at Cornwall’s Bingham Memorial School. The Cornwall selectboard is also expected to hold an informational meeting on the topic within the next few weeks.
According to the Friday presentation, VGS has tentatively scheduled meetings in Shoreham on June 13 and Middlebury on June 18.
The proposed International Paper pipeline — the second of two projects aimed at extending natural gas service into Addison County and eventually Rutland — continues to be a tough sell for Vermont Gas, particularly in Cornwall. Residents, in particular some along Routes 30 and 74, have set up lawn signs protesting the pipeline, a conduit some fear would bring safety concerns, diminished property values and fracked natural gas into their community.
Around 50 local pipeline opponents packed the Cornwall Town Hall last Tuesday to convey their concerns and urge that Vermont Gas seek an alternative route.
“Why put a pipeline through Cornwall when it seems like the majority of people in Cornwall don’t want it?” asked resident Beth Ann Aldrich, one of several who spoke against the project.
Gilbert and Vermont Gas Vice President for Supply and Regulatory Affairs Eileen Simollardes, who also attended last Tuesday’s meeting, replied that as a utility, Vermont Gas has an obligation to its ratepayers to seek the most cost-effective and direct routes when it comes to expansion projects. With Cornwall situated between Middlebury and Ticonderoga, they said there was little that could be done to circumvent the community and still produce a financially viable project.
International Paper would be paying the entire cost of the phase II pipeline, and Vermont Gas is counting on around $20 million of that revenue to help underwrite the phase I pipeline that is to bring natural gas from Colchester to Middlebury as soon as next year. The IP pipeline infrastructure would in turn allow Vermont Gas to extend into Rutland within a decade, instead of the current projection of 25 years, according to Gilbert.
“I’m confident we can build a pipeline that’s safe,” Gilbert said.
He apologized several times to municipal officials and townspeople for what he said was a lack of communication on Vermont Gas’ part that has created “a level of mistrust.” He said he also regretted that some Cornwall landowners this past winter had received unauthorized (by Vermont Gas) visits from surveyors representing a pipeline route that had not been sanctioned.
“Clearly, Vermont Gas has done a very poor job out here in the Cornwall community,” Gilbert said.
“We want to make a commitment to you tonight; I know we can do better,” he added.
Gilbert said his company isn’t used to facing opposition from communities into which it has been introducing natural gas, a product he said is currently around 45 percent cheaper than fuel oil and 55 percent cheaper than propane. Usually, according to Gilbert, Vermont Gas is in the position of being asked to come into towns, rather than bypass them.
In an effort to make the pipeline more attractive to Cornwall, Vermont Gas officials are proposing to provide natural gas to around 70 village homes. These are homes that are tightly grouped enough to be afforded service, according to Gilbert. Such a plan would require construction of a fenced-in gate station. Homes receiving the natural gas could expect to see annual savings of $1,100 to $2,000 if they switch to natural gas for heating, according to Gilbert.
Shoreham village would also be eligible to receive natural gas as part of phase II, Gilbert said. Local service in Cornwall and Shoreham is estimated to be available in 2017.
A 6.1-mile natural gas pipeline through Cornwall would be subject to property taxes, yielding around $240,000 in year one, according to company officials.
According to the VGS presentation on Friday, the tax benefit to Middlebury (7.6 miles of pipeline) is estimated at $300,000, and the benefit to Shoreham (9.3-miles of pipeline) would be $370,000.
Simollardes projected depreciation of the pipeline infrastructure over 70 years. The state of Vermont has set a goal of having 90 percent of its energy provided through renewable sources by 2050.
“I think this is an excellent transition fuel,” Simollardes said of natural gas.
In the meantime, Simollardes and Gilbert are hoping to earn more support in Cornwall for the phase II pipeline. The proposed route (similar to the Route 4 proposal released earlier, but different in some ways) would cross Otter Creek near the midpoint of Creek Road in Middlebury, and cross into Cornwall on Morse Road. It would cross Route 30 south of Clark Road, and continue into Shoreham at Audet Road/Buttolph Road. After crossing Route 22A south of Doolittle Road, the line would continue across fields to Lake Champlain at the north end of Stony Cove.
“We have a proposal that does come through Cornwall, it honors the town plan,” Simollardes said. “We have a route with no structures within 300 feet of the pipeline.”
It’s an east-west route that Vermont Gas officials have identified as a 1,000-foot-wide corridor that would affect roughly 25 local property owners. Simollardes explained that ultimately, Vermont Gas only needs a 50-foot-wide path, but the 1,000-foot-wide-path is being identified as insurance in case the pipeline has to deviate within that corridor due to environmental or other issues.
The ideal 50-foot-wide path being targeted within that corridor by Vermont Gas would affect eight landowners, according to Simollardes.
“All eight of those landowners have had some degree of contact with Vermont Gas, and of the 25 landowners, we have had contact with around 60 percent so far,” Simollardes said.
Officials acknowledged that some affected property owners might oppose granting an easement for the pipeline. Simollardes described a process through which Vermont Gas would try to negotiate with each property owner. The company could still apply for the requisite certificate of public good from the Vermont Public Service Board for phase II before finalizing easement agreements with all property owners. If the company has a certificate of public good in hand and is still at an impasse with a landowner along the route, it could initiate condemnation proceedings to take the easement by eminent domain, according to Simollardes. This would be an almost unprecedented action in Vermont Gas’ almost 50-year history, she said.
“That is the absolute last resort,” she said.
“I hope to never have experience with that proceeding.”
Vermont Gas this week plans to mail a copy of the tentative pipeline map, along with a letter, to all residents of Cornwall.
The company hopes to file its phase II pipeline application with the Vermont Public Service Board this fall, with review to take place next year, followed by potential construction in 2015 and service through Cornwall by 2017, according to Simollardes.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]