VERGENNES — By a 345 to 143 margin Vergennes residents on Tuesday backed the city council’s stance in favor of the Vermont Gas Systems Inc. pipeline extension into Addison County that, if approved, could also serve up to 929 of the 932 properties in Vergennes.
The vote, held in response to a petition filed by resident Jeff Margolis and on the same day as balloting on a $2.88 million Vergennes Union High School bond proposal, drew 32 percent of city voters. City officials said that total was high for balloting not held on Election Day in November or on Town Meeting Day in March.
Balloting also drew media attention, including two television stations, and a half-dozen members of the public interest group Rising Tide Vermont spent about eight-and-a-half hours outside the city’s fire station handing out literature that opposed the process of fracking for gas.
Margolis petitioned the vote because he said he favors alternative, renewable energy sources that he said could be shunted aside if the pipeline goes forward; that fracking, a source of some of Vermont Gas’s product, damages the environment; and that residents of other towns in the pipeline’s path are not being treated fairly. In other towns in Addison and Chittenden counties the pipeline will cross residents’ property, but they will not have access to the gas.
Margolis said balloting proved there was more opposition in Vergennes than aldermen believed when they expressed their support for the pipeline in a letter to the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB). The PSB will ultimately rule on whether the extension will move forward.
“The results of this vote show that the city is more divided than the city council originally assumed. It has also begun a public discussion about our energy future and raised questions about the commitment that (the) Vergennes City Council has made to building infrastructure for fossil fuel,” Margolis said in an email.
“This kicks the can down the road for another generation to come up with sustainable energy solutions, so my deeper hope is that (the) Vergennes City Council sees this as only the first alternative we add to our energy mix and that they begin to actively pursue better alternatives.”
Vermont Gas officials, whose company serves 50,000 customers in Chittenden and Franklin counties, said they were pleased that Vergennes residents “overwhelmingly approved” the council’s position. They say not only is their product cheaper than other fossil fuels, but its production and use creates less impact on global warming.
“We are very grateful for the strong endorsement Vergennes voters have provided for the Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project. They’ve not only voted for cleaner, safer and more affordable natural gas they’ve also acknowledged its role in having a stronger economy and a healthier environment,” said company President and CEO Don Gilbert in a press release.
“The people of Vergennes deserve the same energy choices and economic opportunities available in Chittenden County and we appreciate their support as we work to bring the significant economic and environmental benefits of natural gas to Vergennes, and to more homes and businesses in Addison and Rutland counties.”
Vergennes City Manager Mel Hawley said city officials have been pleased that Vermont Gas agreed to extend lines further than the company initially proposed, including to the large mobile home park on Panton Road and along Hopkins Road, where a seven-lot subdivision is now proposed. Only three isolated properties on Comfort Hill will now be excluded, he said.
Hawley also confirmed that unlike other county towns, gas lines will run almost exclusively along city roads and not across unserved properties.
“There is no (private) easement I see that is required for this project,” Hawley said, with the exception of those needed to serve a handful of homes on private roads. In those cases, he said the lines would still run along the roads, not across properties.
Vocal opposition has arisen in other county towns that do not stand to benefit from the gas, but where residents’ properties will be affected by the proposed pipeline. Many citizens in Cornwall and Monkton have been outspoken against the project, and the Cornwall selectboard is on record as opposing it.
The Middlebury selectboard, on the other hand, in October approved a “memorandum of agreement” with Vermont Gas Systems. That board acknowledged opponents and the need for longer-term energy solutions, but cited the benefits of lower energy costs to Middlebury businesses as well as residents, many of whom live in the village area and would be served by the proposed pipeline.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]