Selectboard delays decision on utility fees (7/30/09)

Ordinance would charge for underground lines

July 30, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

The Williston Selectboard last week ordered staff to further negotiate with utility companies regarding an ordinance that would impose fees for installing underground lines.

The board, after listening to a Vermont Gas representative complain the new rules would drive up costs and potentially prevent line extensions, delayed a vote.

Board member Jeff Fehrs said he was still unsure if the fees matched the actual cost of working around buried lines. Ted Kenney wanted to head off complaints that the town was inflexible or unwilling to negotiate.

“I don’t want anybody saying they didn’t have a fair chance to talk to town officials,” Kenney said at the board’s July 20 session. He mentioned another recent instance — an apparent reference to the controversy over approval of a roundabout in Williston Village — in which residents accused the board of rushing to make a decision before listening to their concerns.

The ordinance had been discussed at previous Selectboard meetings and town staff had already met with representatives from Vermont Gas Systems Inc. and Green Mountain Power.

Town Manager Rick McGuire said further negotiations might be fruitless: “I think the majority of the issues here have been talked about, and there is a fundamental disagreement.”

Town staff proposed the ordinance as a way to cover municipal costs associated with working around the tangle of wires and pipes buried near roads. Public Works Director Neil Boyden has said it takes considerable time and effort to dodge utility lines when, for example, a culvert must be replaced.

The fees would generate an estimated $25,000 a year in revenue for the town.

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 would pay a $100 permit fee and a $100 inspection fee, which are not refundable.

The ordinance also imposes a new $10-per-square-foot fee for excavating sidewalks and roads, and $1.75 per square foot for digging up non-paved areas. Boring horizontally, so-called “trenchless technology” where lines are installed parallel to the ground, would also cost $1.75 per linear foot.

The later provision has drawn the loudest complaints from Vermont Gas. Company spokesman Jim Condos, in a prepared statement, told the Selectboard that Williston would be the only town that imposes a fee for installing lines without digging a trench.

Condos noted that Vermont Gas already helps cover municipal costs, paying about $54,000 in property tax and roughly $35,000 in local sales tax in the last fiscal year.

“Vermont Gas understands that municipalities may be mildly inconvenienced with having facilities located in their roads and rights-of-ways,” his written statement said. “But Vermont Gas’ existence in your (rights-of-way) provides your constituency with a valuable product — an economical, clean source of energy. These additional fees assessed by this ordinance will increase the cost of expanding natural gas service in Williston. These costs will ultimately be borne by the residents and businesses served by Vermont Gas — your constituency.”

Condos told the board that Vermont Gas uses a formula to determine if it is financially feasible to expand service. He said the new fees may prevent future expansions.

Town staff has since the meeting again talked with Vermont Gas. Staff may be willing to make small changes in the fee collection process, McGuire said, but a major alteration to the new rules “pretty much undercuts the fundamental purpose of having the ordinance in the first place.”

The ordinance will likely be considered again by the board at its next meeting, tentatively scheduled for Aug. 17.