Vermont Gas pipeline might need new permit due to wetlands

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MONTPELIER >> Vermont Gas Systems may need to seek a new permit to extend a planned natural gas pipeline through a Hinesburg park, state officials said Thursday.

The issue arose because recent surveying on behalf of the company showed a wetlands area in Geprags Park to be larger than previously measured.

An attorney representing several Hinesburg residents has asked the Public Service Board to order the work halted and to revoke Vermont Gas' permit to run the pipeline through the park.

The park segment would be part of a 41-mile pipeline extension to Addison County that is now expected to cost $165.6 million.

Vermont Gas needed all applicable permits to have been granted before it began work on the pipeline, said Jim Dumont, the attorney for nearly a dozen Hinesburg residents who use the park. Since the company's current permit doesn't account for the additional wetlands area, Dumont said, Vermont Gas lacks a valid permit to continue.

Work has not stopped in response to Dumont's complaint, but neither is it proceeding on the land in question, said Vermont Gas Systems spokeswoman Beth Parent.

The pipeline permit requires Vermont Gas to build where it will hurt the environment the least, Dumont said. The recent revelation concerning Geprags Park's wetlands means the pipeline must follow a different route — preferably along an existing right of way held by VELCO, he said.

But Parent said that would actually cause greater disturbance to the area's natural environment.

"We can reroute into the VELCO corridor, but that would impact more wetlands than our current approved route does," Parent said. "We chose the best route that would have minimal impacts on wetlands in the park."

Parent said any disturbance to the park would be temporary, because the company would return affected land to its natural state once the pipeline is laid.

The mismeasurement of wetlands seems to have been an oversight on the part of the company, said Natural Resources Commissioner Deb Markowitz.

"We have no reason to believe this was done purposefully, but we're looking into it," Markowitz said.

Vermont Gas may need to apply for a new wetlands permit that accounts for the larger area, she said.

"With this new information, staff will reassess the wetlands permit and take a fresh look at whether Vermont Gas is meeting its obligations under the wetlands rules," Markowitz said.

Vermont Gas remains "laser focused" on finishing the pipeline this year, Parent said, and access to the Geprags Park parcel will be a critical component to meeting that timeline.

The company is involved in eminent domain proceedings to win the right to put the pipeline beneath the park. Dumont and his clients are trying to prevent that, on the grounds that eminent domain can't be used to obtain easements on land "dedicated to use as a public town park."

Further, Dumont argues that the proposed right of way through the park violates the deed through which Hinesburg acquired the land, which limited its use to public recreational and educational purposes.

For municipal land with conservation restrictions to be sold or diverted for other uses, Vermont law requires an affirmative vote from residents at a municipality's annual town meeting.

Dumont suggested that if Hinesburg agrees to a right of way through the park without a Town Meeting Day vote, his clients are likely to challenge the easement in court.

The project received a state certificate of public good in 2013 but has struggled to secure access to the planned route and attracted protests from environmental activists who oppose expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure.

Mike Polhamus writes about energy and the environment for VTDigger.


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