Companies complaints prompt lower utility fees (9/24/09)

Town wants to charge for buried lines

Sept. 24, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Amid opposition from utility companies, town staff has reduced proposed fees for installation of underground lines.

The fees are intended to defray costs incurred by the town and its contractors when they work around utility lines buried in the public right-of-way next to roads and highways. Officials say dodging underground electrical wires and gas pipelines can increase municipal costs for building new sidewalks or laying water and sewer pipes.

But Vermont Gas Systems, the state’s only natural gas supplier, complained that the fees would drive up rates and could make extending service to some new locations financially unfeasible. Green Mountain Power, which supplies electricity to about a quarter of the state’s population, has also opposed the fees, which the company said would be passed on to ratepayers.

Their opposition caught the ear of the Williston Selectboard, which must approve the ordinance regulating underground utilities. After considering the original proposal in July, it asked staff to further consult with utility companies to ensure the fees were reasonable. Public Works Director Neil Boyden then talked again to utilities, consulted with an engineering firm and reviewed the fees. He concluded that charges should be lower for so-called directional boring, where lines are installed parallel to the ground to minimize surface disruption.

“This fee was reduced to encourage more utility companies to move toward the directional boring method of construction,” Boyden wrote in a memo. “The end result remains the same; we have an underground utility to deal with in the future. But there is far less disturbance to the right-of-way surface during the construction phase.”

In an interview, Boyden acknowledged that the town’s costs remain the same regardless of how utility lines are installed. But he said directional boring is worth encouraging because it creates fewer problems during installation, such as muddy stormwater runoff into area streams.

The revised proposal keeps the $1.75-per-linear-foot charge for burying utility lines the traditional way by digging a trench, but reduces the fee to $1 a linear foot if directional boring is used.

Williston now charges a refundable deposit of $600 each time a utility company installs a new line along public rights-of-way, roughly a 12-foot strip bordering each side of town roads.

Under the new rules, utilities must pay a $100 permit fee and a $100 inspection fee, which are not refundable, in addition to the excavation charges.

The Selectboard considered the revised ordinance and fees on Monday. Jim Condos, a spokesman for Vermont Gas Systems, told the board that his company had no problem with the permitting and inspection fees but still opposed the lower excavation charges. He also asserted that the town failed to prove that buried lines increase the price of town projects.

But a letter distributed to the board from the Essex Junction engineering firm Forcier Aldrich & Associates indicated otherwise.

Wayne Elliott, the company’s vice president, wrote that working around buried lines can slow repairs to culverts, for example, driving up costs by as much as 50 percent. When a new water or sewer line needs to be installed, he said, it can cost 25 percent to 50 percent more if underground utilities are present.

In his memo, Boyden cited a sidewalk project on Vermont 2A just north of Taft Corners as one example of increased costs. He said that dealing with underground utilities drove up the project’s price by $6,240.

Another revision to the ordinance as originally proposed allows utility companies to pay fees on a monthly or annual basis, a change Vermont Gas had sought.

Condos told the board that the provision conflicted with another section of the ordinance that requires excavation to halt until fees are paid when it moves beyond what was permitted in advance.

Because that conflict could prompt further changes to language in the ordinance — and also because of the earlier fee revisions — the town is required under state statute to hold another public hearing before the Selectboard can vote on the proposal. The hearing will take place at a future board meeting.