Last night, Addison County residents registered their opposition to a proposed natural gas pipeline, loudly and clearly. The strongest rejection came from residents in Cornwall, who voted overwhelmingly — 126-16 — against Phase II of the Addison Rutland Natural Gas project, which would carry natural gas from Middlebury to the International Paper plant in Ticonderoga, N.Y.
But Cornwall — a hotbed of dissent against the project for months now — wasn't alone in that opinion last night. As voters there were casting paper ballots at the local elementary school, members of the energy committee of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission were debating the project in Middlebury. They decided 4-1 not to endorse the pipeline, ruling that it does not comply completely with the energy section of the area's regional plan.
Meanwhile, down the road in neighboring Shoreham, voters were considering an article similar to the non-binding measure in Cornwall. They, too, sided against the pipeline — by a margin of 66-38.
On Tuesday, the Addison County Independent reported that the town of Monkton denounced Phase I of the pipeline project, which would run through Monkton, in a "near-unanimous voice vote."
"I'm smiling from ear to ear right now," Bruce Hiland, chair of the Cornwall selectboard, said on Tuesday morning. The conversation about the pipeline was "a wonderful example of civility," Hiland observed. "There wasn't a harsh word about anything all evening."
Phase II of the pipeline would cut through Cornwall and Shoreham, then head under Lake Champlain before terminating at the IP factory on the lake's New York shore. IP is covering the entire cost of Phase II of the pipeline and is chipping in for Phase I; altogether, Vermont Gas's contract with IP stipulates the paper plant will contribute some $70 million. Vermont Gas says that $45 million of that is a "direct benefit" to Vermont. The gas company says that Phase II is ultimately a step toward advancing natural gas service to Rutland by 2020. Vermont Gas says it would make natural gas available at distribution points in Cornwall and Shoreham's town centers, but that it wouldn't be available for residents to tap into at every point along the line.
Opponents say that a pipeline intended for New York customers — 70 percent of the gas flowing through Addison County would head to IP — isn't in the best interest of local residents.
Cornwall's opposition to the pipeline has taken shape over the last year. First came the outcries (and lawn signs) from residents along a potential route for the pipeline. The hand-lettered placards were followed by printed signs reading "Keep Cornwall Safe." (Similar signs appeared in Leicester and Shoreham.) Absent hard numbers, Hiland said, it was all too easy for proponents of the project to chalk opposition up to a vocal minority. So the town set out to gauge Cornwall residents' opinions with a postcard survey in January; 61 percent of town residences responded, and opponents carried the survey three-to-one.
Even so, Hiland said, the selectboard felt it lacked an "authoritative statement" from the community. "It turns out, the closest thing you can get to that in Vermont, God bless it, is Town Meeting," he said. So the selectboard put a non-binding article on the warning that asked registered voters a fairly straightforward question: "In order to get the sense of the town, are the voters in favor of the construction of Phase 2 of the 'Addison Natural Gas Project?'"
The vote took place by paper ballot, Hiland said, so no one would feel "shamed or embarrassed."
Hiland's delight on Tuesday morning extended beyond the Cornwall results; the decision from the ACRPC energy committee and the results of the Shoreham vote were "two nice surprises" for Hiland. Cornwall, he said, has led the way in opposition to the pipeline — and now others are following.
"This has been doing homework and slogging through stuff and repeating messages over and over again until people listen," he said. That effort isn't going to let up, he said. "We have our work cut out for us, and we will simply continue doing what we've been doing — which is to oppose in every reasonable way we can." For Cornwall, that's meant retaining a lawyer — Ben Marks, who last night was also elected to the selectboard in town — and intervening in the state Public Service Board proceedings which are currently underway for Phase II of the pipeline.
While Cornwall's selectboard has campaigned vigorously and vocally against the pipeline, Shoreham's board has stayed neutral. "We're not saying we're for it or against it," said selectman Bob Warren. If the pipeline does move forward, he noted, the selectboard wants to be in the position "to get the most that we can get for the town."
Will last night's vote change the selectboard's opinion? Not likely, predicted Warren. His feeling is that it's hard to gauge the entire town's opinion from the relatively small sample size at the town meeting. Roughly 100 voters, he said, is just "too small a number." (Because of the Town Meeting Day election, Shoreham's town clerk couldn't be reached to provide the size of Shoreham's voter checklist; the town population is roughly 1,200 residents.)
Vermont Gas took Monday night's votes in stride. "We're not surprised by the outcome of these meetings," said Steve Wark, spokesman for the natural gas company, which is a subsidiary of the Canadian utility Gaz Metro. As for the energy committee's decision, Wark said it sends "a confusing message," given that the ACRPC supported Phase I of the pipeline project, which will carry natural gas from Chittenden County to Middlebury.
"A vote against Phase II is a vote against cleaner regional air quality, and it’s also a vote against helping Rutland improve their economy," said Wark. "To have $45 million [from International Paper] become available to Vermont to expand its infrastructure ... should not be dismissed out of hand."
Disclosure: Kathryn Flagg's husband, Colin Davis, is a delegate to the Addison County Regional Planning Commission representing the town of Shoreham.