MONKTON — Once again, it’s back to the drawing board for Vermont Gas Systems and the town of Monkton.
After several hours of impassioned discussion at a special meeting on Monday night, Monkton’s selectboard rejected a Memorandum of Understanding negotiated between VGS officials and Monkton Selectmen John Phillips and Stephen Pilcher by a 3-2 vote, with Phillips and Pilcher dissenting. Around 70 citizens attended the meeting.
“I’m disappointed, I really am,” Phillips said after the meeting. “I don’t know where we’ll go from here. Get the lawyer and sit down with Vermont Gas again, see where we are.”
The gas company’s petition for a Certificate of Public Good for Phase I of its Addison Natural Gas Project is currently under consideration by the Public Service Board (PSB). The 43-mile transmission pipeline has been the subject of particular controversy in Monkton, which on Town Meeting Day approved two measures 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 board not to issue any pipeline permits to the company until safety concerns had been addressed. Both measures were passed from the floor with robust support.
The memorandum under consideration on Monday was the attempt to address the town’s concerns about the safety of the pipeline, a written compromise between VGS and Monkton that, if approved, would have been submitted to the PSB as an amendment to VGS’ petition for the certificate of public good. The town, which has intervener status, is under a June 14 deadline to submit plea filings to the PSB.
The terms of the document provided financial protections for Monkton landowners, committed VGS to establishing a distribution network for all residences within 100 feet of the main transmission line, established setbacks for blasting, and gave town officials access to planning meetings and a project manager who would answer their calls and questions within 24 hours.
The board’s rejection of the memorandum means the protections negotiated within it may not be extended again, though VGS officials said on Tuesday that they would go back to the table to negotiate.
“Vermont Gas is grateful to (Monkton’s) selectboard and citizens for the time and effort they put in,” said Steve Wark, director of communications.
Wark added that he had not attended the meeting and had not yet been made aware of the sections of the memorandum that citizens and board members took issue with. But he expressed confidence that VGS and Monkton could find a “mutually agreeable solution,” perhaps putting to rest some of the concerns expressed at Monday’s meeting that VGS would, in the words of one resident, “wash their hands” of negotiations if the memorandum was rejected.
The Addison County Regional Planning Commission and the towns of Cornwall and Shoreham (which would be intersected by VGS’ pipeline during Phase II of the project) are also working on negotiating Memorandums of Understanding with VGS. Monkton was the first to make its memorandum public, and the only Phase I town to negotiate one in the first phase.
Pilcher and Phillips said they had worked hard to cut the best deal possible for the town. While presenting the details of the memorandum to the townspeople gathered at Monday’s meeting, Pilcher stressed that VGS does not normally agree to include many of those provisions.
“My position is that Vermont Gas is not a neighbor that I want,” Pilcher said. “But if they’re going to be my neighbor, I want them to be the best neighbor they can. That’s what this (memorandum) is.”
He added that fighting the company’s licensure would be a costly endeavor.
“The board has said that we are not interested in litigating this pipeline,” he said. “This memorandum was our attempt to get around that legal process, (which would) burn away our time, burn away cash.”
Though every citizen that stood to speak commended Phillips and Pilcher for their hard work, some urged the board to reject the memorandum at many points during the meeting’s discussion, despite what many felt was the inevitability of the pipeline’s licensure and the risk that the town would lose the protections that Pilcher and Phillips had negotiated for it.
Due to the June 14 plea-filing deadline, Pilcher and Phillips said that renegotiating the memorandum was unlikely to be an option.
The sticking point for many of the residents who were opposed seemed to be the final sentence of the memo’s preamble, which stated: “The parties agree that with incorporation of the agreements and conditions set forth … the proposed construction of the natural gas pipeline should be granted a certificate of public good.”
Many audience members found the implicit endorsement of the pipeline unpalatable.
“I think you guys did the best you could do,” said Eugenie Doyle, a Tyler Bridge Road landowner. “But I don’t agree. I don’t think it goes far enough. It shouldn’t be in town at all.”
Barb Deal, a member of the Monkton Conservation Commission, echoed that sentiment.
“I would really like to see us make a stand,” she said.
Others argued that a “no” vote on the current memorandum might push VGS to even greater concessions.
“Once you vote for this, it’s game over,” said Jennifer Baker. “They move Monkton to their ‘win’ column … once this is signed, Monkton loses its voice.”
Still others said that given the project’s seemingly inevitable licensure, the town should be appreciative of the concessions VGS had made.
“You will never make a perfect document,” one resident pointed out.
When some asked for a show of hands to see what percentage of the residents in attendance would give the pipeline their approval — and what percentage would support adopting the memorandum, regardless of their feelings on the pipeline itself — several audience and board members quickly shut it down.
“This is not a representative sample,” Pilcher said, before pointing out that the pipeline’s opponents could have taken political action on their own.
“Call a petition,” he said. “Get 10 percent of voters and call a special election.”
He pointed out that Monkton has a particular issue with gauging public support. At this year’s town meeting, for example, the public seemed to enthusiastically support the construction of a new town hall, but the measure was soundly defeated at the polls the next day.
After the meeting, Phillips echoed that sentiment.
“Where does the town as a whole stand? It’s so hard to get a feel on that,” he told the Independent. “I understand the position of the ones who oppose it or who want bigger setbacks, and it’s not like we didn’t take their points into consideration. But obviously they worked hard to get their people out here tonight.”
After almost two hours of open floor discussion, Pilcher made the motion to adopt the memorandum as it was written. Selectman John McNerney seconded the motion but hesitated before casting his vote.
He asked if the board could preface the sentence that endorsed VGS’ PSB application with something that would limit the town’s expression of approval.
“I can’t support something that says we endorse (the Certificate of Public Good), but I could support it if we limit our approval,” McNerney said.
After some discussion of what that potential wording would be, it was pointed out that no alteration to the memo that the board made would matter until VGS approved it. Pilcher made the point that the company had made concessions in order to have the town’s endorsement be part of their filing.
Pilcher eventually called the question. He and Phillips voted in favor. McNerney and selectman Rodger Parker cast “no” votes, with Parker citing the risks he considered to be associated with the pipeline’s presence in town. Selectwoman Anne Layn paused for several moments before casting her tie-breaking “no” vote.
She said that the one reason she would vote no was that she “hated” the idea that anyone would lose control of his or her land as a result of the project. In the end, that decided her vote.
Phillips said after the meeting’s adjournment that it was unclear what specific action the town would take in the coming weeks. He expected that the town would file “some kind” of plea before the June 14 deadline to protect its interests.
Whatever the action, many will be watching.
As one Monkton landowner said at the meeting, “(Monkton is) not just sending a message to the PSB, but to the other towns. They’re going to be listening to what we have to say.”