Vermont Gas wants to bury gas lines on public rights of way in the town of Bristol, but some residents say the town should have asked them first.
Thirty-seven Bristol residents have now sued the town. They say the selectboard failed to give voters a chance to weigh in before allowing Vermont Gas to construct gas distribution lines through town property.
Attorney James Dumont filed the lawsuit on behalf of the residents. He says state law is clear about a town’s obligation to seek voter input when it wants to sell or convey property, including the use of public rights of way. He says the town has to schedule a vote on the issue, or it has to give voters a chance to force a vote through a petition.
“If that petition is filed with 5 percent of the voters’ names on it, there must be a vote and the results of the vote are binding,” Dumont said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that if that notice had been provided by [the] selectboard, my clients would have had 5 percent of the voters sign a petition very quickly and there would have been a vote.”
Dumont wrote the selectboard in July spelling out his concerns. But the board’s minutes show that at their July 23 meeting, the board was advised by their attorney that “they don’t need to wait.” The board then voted to sign the agreement with Vermont Gas.
Bristol Town Administrator Valerie Capels says the town did not grant an easement to Vermont Gas. Instead, she says, the town granted the utility a license allowing it to use the rights of way. Because it’s a license agreement and not an easement, Capels says a public vote was not required.
Dumont’s lawsuit says the license agreement fits the definition of an easement. And either way, he says, the town was obligated to give residents an opportunity to vote on it.
The lawyer says there’s more at stake than the use of town property with proper approval. He says natural gas is a potent greenhouse gas and that distribution lines are not always safe.
“Data from the federal agency that regulates pipelines tell us that if you just look at distribution pipelines – not transmission pipelines, just distribution – that between 100 and 200 accidents [happen] a year in this country,” he said.
Vermont Gas spokeswoman Beth Parent says the fuel is a safe and clean alternative.
“Natural gas continues to be the safest, most reliable and affordable, cleanest option for families and businesses in Vermont,” she said. “And we are committed to bringing those families and businesses an important energy choice.”
Parent says the gas company would support a public vote on the rights of way, if that’s what the town decides.
Correction 6:30 p.m. A previous version of this post referenced the selectboard's minutes from "their next meeting in August." The meeting actually took place July 23.