WILLISTON — The attorney for a family who settled with Vermont Gas Systems to avoid having their land taken by eminent domain says the utility violated that agreement last week by starting construction-related activities without giving proper notice.
James Dumont represents a number of people with property on the Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project pipeline route. His clients Terence and Kari Cuneo reached a settlement to sell their Williston property to Vermont Gas earlier this year.
The deal allowed the family to stay in their home but contained a notification provision that was supposed to give them time to leave and stay elsewhere while construction is completed. The agreement also allows them to return after construction while they search for a new home.
The occupancy agreement says the Cuneos would be given 48 hours' notice of any preconstruction work, which is defined in the agreement as "surveying, rock-probing, geotechnical boring, tree clearing, staking for (right of way) delineation, and other activities to prepare for construction."
It also states that notice would be required for the use of any heavy vehicles "greater than the mass of a standard pickup truck" and that notice was to be provided by phone call and email to them and their attorney.
No construction was supposed to happen before Saturday, according to the agreement. The agreement was intended to ensure the safety of the family, because one of the Cuneos' children walks to school across the pipeline route, Dumont said.
That's why it came as an unwelcome surprise Thursday when a bulldozer and excavator were brought onto the property, digging out and flattening the pipeline route and leaving earth piled to one side, according to Dumont.
Vermont Gas spokeswoman Beth Parent said the company had met its obligations. "This landowner is opposed to the project. We go to great lengths to make sure each and every landowner is respected, even when we disagree. We gave a two-week notice for preconstruction. We own this property and have met the requirements of our agreement," Parent said in an email.
A phone call to Kari Cuneo was not returned Friday. Dumont said his clients' opposition to the pipeline is well-known, but that raising their opposition in this context is an ad hominem attack to distract from Vermont Gas having violated the agreement.
Parent said the company called the Cuneos two weeks ago to notify them about preconstruction activities. A printed notice with similar information was left June 3, she said.
Dumont said his clients don't recall receiving a printed notice. They also claim they did not receive a call from Vermont Gas about the preconstruction activities. Neither Dumont nor his clients received an email as required by the agreement, he said.
"The purpose of the emails is to avoid a he-said-she-said situation," Dumont said in an interview Friday.
In addition, he questioned whether the work with heavy construction equipment that occurred Thursday meets the agreement's definition of preconstruction activities.
Instead, he argues that Vermont Gas wanted to avoid having to cross nearby roads with heavy equipment multiple times to reach the portion of the pipeline route that crosses through the Cuneos' neighborhood.
"They're a big company and they feel like they can run over little people, so they did it," Dumont said.
The pipeline project received a certificate of public good from state regulators in 2013, but it has drawn dogged protest from environmental activists who oppose the further expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure.
Dumont also represents a group of Hinesburg residents who were recently granted party status in eminent domain proceedings through which Vermont Gas hopes to obtain a right of way through a municipal park.
Vermont Gas officials say delays from disruptive protests and in securing rights of way could delay a project that was expected to be completed this fall, placing serious time pressures on the summer construction season.
That could also increase the cost of the project, which has already ballooned from $86 million to $154 million. A revised agreement with state regulators allows Vermont Gas to pass along to ratepayers only $134 million of its costs, except for those incurred due to disruptions or delays securing rights of way that go beyond the cap amount.
Construction of the pipeline through the Cuneos' neighborhood off Lincoln Road in Williston was expected to begin this weekend or early this week, Dumont said.