Construction last month on the Vermont Gas Systems pipeline in St. George
***Updated at 10:10 a.m. Friday to reflect the board's decision to allow media to attend.
A hearing next month on Vermont Gas Systems' pipeline project will be closed to the public, the state Public Service Board has decided — a move that observers say is unprecedented.
As first reported by Vermont Public Radio, the board last week said that the August 4 technical hearing will be open only to the parties involved. Access to the hearing, at a state building in Barre, will be controlled by police.
The Public Service Board subsequently decided to allow members of the media to attend the hearing in person, board deputy clerk Holly Anderson said on Friday, though the number may be limited by space constraints.
The board ruled that the move to exclude the public was necessary because protesters have disrupted other pipeline hearings.
"Many members of the public rose from their seats in the hearing room and raised their voices loudly in song, refusing to heed appeals from the hearing officers to lower their voices so as not to interfere with the proceedings," the board said in its ruling, describing one protest.
The public will have the opportunity to listen to the hearing via phone, according to the ruling.
"Our decision to close this technical hearing to the public has not been lightly taken, and we regret the need to take this step," the board said. The board said protests at several hearings related to the pipeline project impeded the parties' right to due process.
The controversial 41-mile pipeline from Colchester to Middlebury is under construction. Vermont Gas is seeking permission to condemn land via eminent domain for the line to pass through Geprags Park in Hinesburg. A group of local residents is fighting the process. The town-owned park is one of two parcels that Vermont Gas has yet to receive permission to use for the pipeline.
The park in Hinesburg
Pipeline protesters have tried various means of interrupting construction work and hearings, with arrests made in several instances.
Sandra Levine, senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation who frequently appears before the board, said she has never seen the Public Service Board close a hearing like this.
"And it is really troubling," she said. "Closing hearings to the public shows a disrespect of the public role of the board."
Jim Dumont, an attorney representing those fighting the Geprags Park eminent domain proceeding, said he will fight closure of the hearing but has yet to finalize his response to the board.
Both Vermont Gas and the state Public Service Department recommended that the board keep the hearing open to the public, but the board said it could not find a way to do that. State law exempts the board from the open meetings law that governs municipal entities.
Chris Winters, deputy secretary of state, said that though the board is not bound by the open meetings law, his office advises all state agencies to err on the side of openness whenever possible, even when not legally required.
"Just because it's legal doesn't make it right," he said in an email. "When public bodies confront potentially unruly attendees, we advise setting strict ground rules at the outset and security/law enforcement presence to escort out anyone who is disruptive ... Being there by phone is not equal to being there in person, where you can really assess what's going on in the room."
The board had difficulty finding a place to hold the hearing at all, says its written order. Other tenants in the People's United Bank building where the board is located "have expressed concerns about the board continuing to hold hearings related to the VGS pipeline construction project in the building during regular business hours," it said.
The hearing will start at 9:30 a.m. August 4 in the training room of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources building at 190 Junction Road in Berlin.
"Access to the hearing site will be controlled by law enforcement officials, who will only permit the entry of the parties, their counsel, their witnesses, the Board members, Board staff, and the court reporter," the ruling states. "All persons who attend the August 4 hearing will be required to present a form of valid photo identification."