Williston family gears up for eminent domain fight

By Stephanie Choate

Observer staff

When Kari and Terence Cuneo bought their 10-acre Williston property eight years ago, eminent domain never crossed their minds.

“We were so excited to get a piece of property our kids could grow up on and roam on,” Kari Cuneo said.

“No one ever goes into a real estate deal thinking it’s likely my property is going to be seized by the state,” said her husband, Terence Cuneo.

But now, the family is set to appear before the Public Service Board in Montpelier on Friday to fight Vermont Gas’ plans to run its natural gas pipeline through their Chaloux Lane property—the first hearing in the company’s eminent domain proceedings against the Cuneos.

Vermont Gas filed a petition with the Public Service Board on Oct. 21, 2015 to condemn the easement rights on the property. The hearings were stayed while the board decided whether to reopen the project’s Certificate of Public Good. When the board decided on Jan. 8 that the pipeline still benefits ratepayers despite drastic price increases, the stay was lifted.

The Cuneos are one of a handful of families that have declined to sell easements to Vermont Gas. The company has reached agreements with 161 of 164 landowners along the pipeline’s route, according to spokeswoman Beth Parent.

“We are deeply appreciative of the time and energy each landowner and community has put into this very important clean energy project,” Parent wrote in an email to the Observer. “Eminent domain is a last resort but not the end of the road. We are committed to reaching a resolution with every remaining landowner who is willing.”

Kari and Terence Cuneo said they don’t believe this project clears the high bar required for eminent domain.

“This is a huge fossil fuel company flexing its muscles and taking land when it suits their purpose,” Terence Cuneo said. “It seems to us completely unjustified that a private company can conscript the state in such a way that the state will act on their behalf to seize land. We’re just not seeing what the public good is.”

Cuneo said he understands that eminent domain is sometimes justified—like for a highway or airport that will benefit the community as a whole. But he says a pipeline that will bring natural gas to a couple thousand customers is not sufficient.

“As far as we can see, this is such a far cry from the sort of thing that could justify eminent domain,” he said. “If a family does not want to sell their land to a huge gas company, they’re just going to be basically chewed up by the corporate machine.”

Vermont Gas is a subsidiary of Quebec’s largest natural gas company, Gaz Metro.

The Cuneos said Vermont Gas wants to build the pipeline straight through the middle of their property.

“That’s where our kids play and right where they walk to get to school,” Kari Cuneo said. “On a personal level, we feel like they are coming in and stealing land…I feel as if so many people don’t understand, unless they’re in our shoes what we’re really going through, and the pressure they have put on us.”

Terence Cuneo added that they offered to sell the entire property to Vermont Gas, but the company refused.

Asked whether it is feasible to reroute the pipeline around the Cuneo’s property or purchase the entire property, Parent said she could not speak to the specifics of negotiations with individual landowners.

The Cuneo family also believes investing in fossil fuels is the wrong way to go, and they said they do not want a pipeline with gas extracted by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in Canada running across their property.

“We’d like people to see the project for what it is,” Terence Cuneo said. “This is not the way forward. Vermont can do so much better. In other areas we have been so much better. We have a chance to be a leader, this is just going backward.”

Terence Cuneo pointed to Vermont’s Comprehensive Energy Plan, which aims to have 90 percent of the state’s energy needs met by renewable sources by 2050.

He also said the project doesn’t make financial sense. Initially estimated to cost $86.6 million, Vermont Gas repeatedly raised its cost estimate for the project, now at $154 million.

“It’s really, really puzzling to me how the people in power and the Public Service Board are looking at it,” he said. “When I look at it, it’s really hard to make this make sense, environmentally, financially and ethically.”

Parent said the project will benefit the state.

“The Addison Natural Gas Project will bring choice and opportunity to thousands of Vermont families and businesses in Addison County, increase the availability of a cleaner, more reliable energy source, and offer families, farms, businesses and institutions access to our nationally recognized energy efficiency programs,” she said. “The Project will also bring significant economic and environmental benefits to the entire state.”

The Cuneos said they are dedicated to the stand they have taken, despite the stress it has caused their family.

“We’ll stand for what we think is the correct thing to do and the ethical thing to do, and hope it makes something of a difference,” he said.