In July of 2014, Maren Vasatka sat with a few other women in the lobby of Vermont Gas Systems’ South Burlington headquarters and started to knit. Vasatka and others in her "knit-in" group promised to stay in the company's lobby until company officials would meet them.
The women were frustrated with how the company was dealing with landowners like themselves along the route of its Addison County pipeline project.
On Oct.8, Vermont Gas agreed to pay Vasatka more than half a million dollars for her home – 90 percent above the assessed value, and more than $100,000 above an appraiser’s estimate.
The deal came before Vermont Gas formally launched eminent domain proceedings against the nine landowners with whom the company hasn’t yet reached an agreement.
Vermont Gas spokeswoman Beth Parent says the filings were the “last resort” for the utility and were necessary for the success of the project.
“The company did have to issue a few filings this week,” she said. “It’s certainly not the end of the road. We are committed to sitting down with the remaining folks and really trying to work out a resolution so we can keep this project moving on-time, on-budget and continue the progress we’ve been making.”
Parent also said she is thankful to the 94 percent of homeowners along the pipeline who came to an agreement with the company before this week’s filings. Vasatka, a vocal opponent of the project, was one of them.
Vasatka says some people have told her and her husband that they “sold out” by striking a deal with the company, but she says the sum didn’t buy her approval.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “[I am] still strongly opposed to the pipeline, still strongly opposed to everything it stands for and the lack of economic benefit it brings to Addison County. I don’t buy Vermont Gas’ fuzzy math numbers.”
Vasatka said she took the deal, though, because fighting the pipeline is “an uphill battle.”
“The Public Service Board is never going to do the right thing,” she said. “The Department of Public Service is never going to represent or protect the Vermonters in the state, nor are they going to represent or protect the ratepayers, and I think they have clearly told us that. And without any protections, why would my husband and I spend our life earnings on attorneys to go to these hearings to try to stop or protect our property when the state doesn’t care? ANR [the Agency of Natural Resources] doesn’t care, nobody cares.”
Vasatka and her husband sold their home to Vermont Gas for $560,000, according to Monkton town records. Vasatka said that amount was Vermont Gas’ first offer on the property. She says she and her husband didn’t want to move out, but they couldn’t come to terms with the company on an easement.
“We only ever asked for 15 percent of our assessed value” for an easement, she said.
Vasatka and her husband were asking the company for $62,500 for the use of their land for the pipeline after an appraiser said the property was worth around $415,000. Vasatka said national experts told her that if the pipeline was built across the land, the property could lose up to 15 percent of its value, and she wanted to be appropriately compensated.
But when the two sides could not agree on the conditions of an easement, the company decided to buy the property outright at a price more than $150,000 above the appraised value – and a full 90 percent above the years-old town-assessed value of $293,200.
“They paid us more than we ever asked for,” Vasatka said. “How is that protecting ratepayers?”
Vermont Gas spokeswoman Beth Parent would not comment on specific negotiations. When asked if paying above market rate for property was consistent with the company’s goal of finishing the project on budget, she responded:
“As I stated, we are committed to keeping this project on time and on budget," Parent said. "We just filed with the board our quarterly cost estimate to show that we are still on time and on budget, and we are committed to keeping it that way.”
Correction Oct. 26 11:17 a.m. An earlier version of this story referred to the eminent domain process as "imminent domain." The error has been corrected.