A group of Hinesburg residents opposed to the Vermont Gas pipeline to Addison County is bringing their fight to the Vermont Supreme Court.
The nine residents are appealing a decision by the Vermont Public Service Board to allow Vermont Gas to install the pipeline under Geprags Park, a public park in Hinesburg.
The board’s ruling allows the company to build under the park using eminent domain, meaning the landowner (the Town of Hinesburg) doesn’t have a choice in the matter. The residents group’s appeal could mean more delays for the pipeline, which has already faced numerous delays and cost overruns.
Vermont Gas spokeswoman Beth Parent said the opposition group is slowing the project down and should respect the board ruling.
Jim Dumont, a lawyer for the group, says the Public Service Board’s ruling is flawed. He says the ruling gives Vermont Gas the right to cut trees, excavate and even close sections of the park to the public while simultaneously asserting that the presence of the pipeline will not have a substantial impact on the public’s use of the park.
“The evidence shows that … the Easement across Geprags Park would neither destroy nor materially impair the existing public recreational uses of the park,” the board’s ruling said.
The impact on the existing uses of the park is important because the residents group made the argument that a 1928 Vermont Supreme Court decision bans the use of eminent domain to change the existing use of land that’s already public.
A key component of Vermont Gas’ plan is to use horizontal directional drilling (HDD) to put the pipeline under the park. That means the company wouldn’t have to dig a trench through the park, and could install the pipeline without affecting the use of the park. (The pipeline has already been installed beneath roads using this method, and the roads didn’t have to be closed during the drilling.)
Vermont Gas' commitment to using this method was part of an agreement made with the town of Hinesburg earlier this year. The company has now reached agreements with all 164 landowners along the pipeline route, according to Parent. The dispute with the Hinesburg residents is the final land-rights hurdle for the pipeline.
The board said that because Vermont Gas plans to drill under the park instead of digging, the current uses of the park wouldn’t be affected.
“Because the Company will use HDD to construct the pipeline, the public’s use of the Park will not be disturbed during construction of the pipeline in the Easement area, and there will be few maintenance requirements,” the board’s order said.
Dumont said that while there are few expected maintenance requirements, the board is still giving Vermont Gas the right to excavate in the park and use heavy machinery within the park if there are unexpected problems or safety concerns.
“We’re saying once you give them those rights, they may have to use them – may have to use them all,” Dumont said. “What we’re trying to say is it’s inappropriate to say, ‘Well, we don’t think they’re likely to use all those, so we’re going to pretend that they won’t.’”
Dumont’s argument in filings to the Public Service Board and the Supreme Court is that if Vermont Gas uses the rights that the board is trying to give it, those activities – excavating in the park, closing parts of the park or using heavy machinery in the park, for example – would have a major impact on the public’s use of the park.
Vermont Gas spokeswoman Beth Parent said the residents group should accept the board’s ruling and stop taking actions that slow down the pipeline's completion.
“These legal maneuvers by project opponents are forcing thousands of families and businesses in Addison County to continue to rely on more expensive energy sources,” Parent said. “The Public Service Board granted us approval to access that park in Hinesburg and it’s time for these project opponents to respect that ruling.”
The Hinesburg park is the only piece of land the company doesn't yet have rights to build on, and Parent said construction on the rest of the 41-mile pipeline "is progressing really, really well right now and we're scheduled to be completed within the next few weeks."
The opposition group is waiting to hear back from the Public Service Board after officially asking the board to reconsider its decision. If the board upholds the decision, the case will go straight to the Vermont Supreme Court.
Update 5:55 p.m. 09/29/2016: This story was edited to reflect that Vermont Gas has agreements with owners along the pipeline route.