MONKTON — The Monkton selectboard unanimously approved a memorandum of understanding with Vermont Gas Systems at a hastily scheduled special meeting on Wednesday night. The board had rejected an earlier draft of the agreement in a 3-2 decision just nine days earlier.
The revised memorandum struck out language that explicitly endorsed VGS’s Addison Natural Gas Project, which is currently under review for licensure with the Vermont Public Service Board, and added some clarifying language to existing provisions. Wednesday’s follow-up meeting was not warned until Tuesday, narrowly meeting the 24-hour requirement.
The memorandum will be filed as an amendment to VGS’s application for a certificate of public good from the PSB. The town of Monkton, which has intervener status, was under a June 14 deadline to submit its position to the PSB.
Around 20 citizens gathered at the town hall to comment on the revised memorandum. Several expressed a desire to submit the town’s position as a rejection of the pipeline coming through Monkton at all.
“Is there a point in the process where we say, we don’t want the gas pipeline to go through Monkton?” asked resident Eugenie Doyle. “Instead it’s like, ‘Well Vermont Gas is not a good neighbor, they’re not angels.’ But why in this process, on Friday, can’t you just say the position of the town is that we don’t want the gas pipeline to go through?”
Selectboard chair John Phillips said the board had never been asked to do that, and expressed the opinion that the time to ask them to had passed.
He reiterated for those gathered that the negotiations process with Vermont Gas had begun over a year ago, when the company had first proposed to come through town using the existing VELCO utilities corridor. No distribution network was offered.
In December, the company filed an application with the PSB that included what many residents considered to be an eleventh hour change of route that would have sent the pipeline down the public right-of-way on Monkton Road.
“A lot of people asked us to go to bat for them and say, if it’s going through town please go back to your original VELCO route,” Phillips said. “We wrote that letter. It wasn’t a letter of ‘Don’t come through town.’”
VGS eventually amended its filing, with the route reverting — for the most part — back to the VELCO corridor. On Town Meeting Day, the town approved two separate articles that signaled townspeople’s skepticism about the pipeline project: One authorized the selectboard to establish a $50,000 legal fund to represent the town against Vermont Gas Systems at upcoming PSB hearings, and another asked the selectboard not to issue any pipeline permits to the company until safety concerns had been addressed.
“We were never, ever directed not to approve this thing or to work for not having it come through town … We thought we were doing what the people wanted us to do, what we were asked to do, and we did it. And we spent a fair amount of money and time towards that end. It’s too late now to go backwards,” Phillips said.
Monkton’s lawyer further clarified that individual landowners, many of whom have party status in the PSB’s hearings, are not bound to the memorandum of understanding and can choose to continue to fight the pipeline’s presence on their property.
Opponents acknowledged the work of the selectboard even if they took issue with the implicit endorsement of filing the memorandum with the PSB.
“They have done more than any other selectboard on behalf of their residents,” said pipeline opponent Jennifer Baker after the meeting. “It’s a very pragmatic approach.”
The terms of the memorandum provided financial protections for Monkton landowners against property damage, committed VGS to establishing a distribution network for all residences within 100 feet of the main transmission line, established 300-foot setbacks from homes and wells, and gave town officials access to planning meetings and a project manager who would answer their calls and questions within 24 hours.
VGS also agreed to reimburse landowners for any damages caused by blasting or construction. A provision added to the new version of the memorandum also committed the company to negotiating easements with landowners “in good faith,” resorting to eminent domain only as a last resort.
CONTINUE THE FIGHT
Not all were satisfied with the terms of the memorandum. Rotax Road residents Nate and Jane Palmer say they plan to continue to fight the pipeline, which would cut directly through their property and disrupt agricultural activities.
And resident Ivor Hughes pointed out Monkton was still gaining very little financially.
“The amount that the town gets is going to be different per household,” Hughes said. “But it’s pretty miniscule for all the grief we’re going through.”
Former Selectman Pete Norris said that while he mistrusted Vermont Gas, the town had to take a realistic approach.
“These guys are not knights in shining armor,” Norris said. “This is all about money for them, let’s face the facts. Then again, I think that we the citizens of Monkton have got to be pragmatic … Vermont Gas signs this document, they’re committing to a lot of things that they would not commit to before and they will not commit to if we don’t sign this document. While it’s not perfect it’s a lot better than where we were three months ago or sixth months ago.”