A quiet park in the town of Hinesburg has become the latest battlefield over the ongoing construction of a natural gas transmission line in western Vermont.
"It's not an area I'm happy to see damaged at all," said Rachel Smolker, an advocate for the protection of Geprags Park.
The park is the final piece of a puzzle Vermont Gas needs in order to connect parcels of land in the path of its 41-mile, $165 million natural gas transmission pipeline, which is planned to expand service to new residential and business customers in the Middlebury area.
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The park is the last of the 164 property deals Vermont Gas needs to finalize in order for the project to be completed.
Smolker said she worries the project will disrupt bird habitat in Geprags, cause harm to sensitive wetlands, and violate the terms of the park's origins, which she said called for educational and recreational usage, not hosting fossil fuel infrastructure.
"We don't want it in your park, we don't want it in our neighbor's yard, we don't want it down the road," Smolker said of the natural gas transmission pipeline. "We don't want this pipeline."
Don Rendall, the CEO of Vermont Gas, explained that pipeline construction is currently continuing on either side of the park until the company can settle the right-of-way for Geprags Park with the town of Hinesburg.
The utility has promised payments to Hinesburg, significant property tax revenue boosts, and construction methods that protect animals and the land.
"I have confidence that we will be able to work through these challenges," Rendall told necn. "We leave [the land] in as good a condition as it was before and, often, even in a better condition than it was before."
Rendall also said Vermont Gas will extend service to additional homeowners within Hinesburg, including some who live in a mobile home park and are now heating their homes with kerosene. Those residents should see significant cost-savings benefits on home heating, Rendall noted.
In another, very contentious, twist to this debate, an August 4 land use hearing before the Vermont Public Service Board will actually be closed to the public.
In a recent decision, the board ruled that protesters at past meetings "made it difficult" to do state business due to singing, chanting, and other demonstrations. The public service board instead wants people to listen to the hearing about Geprags over the phone, through a conference line.
However, Lisa Barrett of Huntington said she is fighting in federal court for more access to the hearing, and expects a judge to listen to her request late this week.
"They're talking about taking a public park, at the public service board, and they've closed it to the public," Barrett said. "And I think that's, really, a big mistake."
The utility needs regulatory approval through that hearing process in order to go through the park.
Vermont Gas said it expects to finish the pipeline by the end of the year.