Board passes utility ordinance (12/17/09)

Fee hikes axed from measure

Dec. 17, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

The Williston Selectboard passed a utility ordinance but stripped the fees for buried lines sought by town staff.

The board voted 4-0 to approve the new rules at its Dec. 7 session while deciding to revisit the fee issue — the main reason staff sought the ordinance — at a later date.

The ordinance was aimed at recouping costs associated with the wires and pipes installed in the rights-of-way next to roads. Town officials say buried utilities can damage roads and increase expense of maintaining infrastructure such as culverts and sewer lines.

The proposed fees would have generated roughly $25,000 a year in revenue for the town.

Jim Condos of Vermont Gas Systems, the state’s only natural gas supplier, reprised arguments he had made during previous hearings on the subject. He said the fee would simply be passed on to customers in the form of higher rates, and it might in some cases make it financially unfeasible to extend lines to areas of Williston that currently do not have natural gas service.

“It looks to me, to put it bluntly, like a money grab,” he said.

Bruce Hoar, Williston’s new public works director, said the board should pass the ordinance written by his predecessor, Neil Boyden. He noted that his former employer, the city of South Burlington, and other towns around the country charge utility companies for burying lines.

“There’s nothing new or groundbreaking here,” he said. “It’s being done all over the United States. I see no reason why we can’t adopt it here.”

Utility excavations scar asphalt, shortening the lifespan of the stretch of road where they are installed by three to four years, Hoar said. Though utilities patch roads, he said the repairs are never as good as the original pavement.

But board members had doubts. Jeff Fehrs said he could not support the new fees without knowing they matched what buried lines cost the town. Staff used ballpark expense estimates to determine the fees.

Judy Sassorossi said she was philosophically opposed to such charges because utilities are a public benefit. She said in those cases everyone should pay for expenses, not just users, likening the situation to public schools where residents fund education whether or not they have children in school.

Williston now charges a refundable deposit of $600 each time a utility company installs a new line along the town’s rights-of-way. Under the ordinance, utilities would have paid a non-refundable $100 permit fee and a $100 inspection fee.

The ordinance also would have imposed a new $10-per-square-foot fee for excavating sidewalks and roads, and charge $1.75 per square foot for digging up other areas. Boring horizontally, so-called “trenchless technology” where lines are installed by boring underground, would cost $1 per linear foot.

That later provision had previously prompted complaints from Vermont Gas, which increasingly uses the method to install lines. The proposed fee was then reduced by 75 cents per linear foot.

The town has in the past used informal guidelines to regulate utility installations and charge fees. The new ordinance makes those rules official.

The ordinance goes into effect in 60 days. McGuire said he hopes the board will within that period revisit the fee issue.