Utility companies lobby for rule changes (6/11/09)

Ordinance would impose fees for new lines

June 11, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Utility companies privately lobbied town staff before publicly trying to convince the Selectboard that proposed fees for burying power and gas lines were too high.

Representatives from Green Mountain Power and Vermont Gas Systems spoke during a public hearing last week. They said the new charges would simply be passed along to ratepayers.

“This increased cost will ultimately be born(e) by Vermont Gas customers and has the potential to adversely impact the expansion of natural gas service to Williston residents,” wrote Jim Condos, spokesman for the company, in a statement he distributed to Selectboard members. “Vermont Gas estimates the ordinance will add between 8 and 15 percent to the cost of construction in Williston.”

Mary Morris from Green Mountain Power said she seconded Condos’ concerns and worried the rules could also drive up costs by requiring new lines to be placed underground.

“When you start running more lines underground, it’s a huge cost to the company and a huge cost for customers,” she said.

Town staff proposed an ordinance establishing the fees, which they said were needed to cover costs associated with working around the tangle of wires and pipes buried along roadsides.

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.

The ordinance also imposes a $10-per-square-foot fee for excavating sidewalks and roads, and $1.75 per square foot for digging up non-paved areas. Boring horizontally, which is done to run lines parallel to the ground, would cost $1.75 per linear foot.

The town estimates the fees would generate $25,000 in the fiscal year starting July 1.

Green Mountain Power and Vermont Gas representatives lobbied Williston Public Works Director Neil Boyden in advance of the June 1 hearing on the ordinance.

A review of drafts of the ordinance shows town staff made small alterations in response to utilities’ concerns. The proposed fees, however, remained unchanged.

One change allows utilities in some cases to pay fees in monthly installments. That could also help town staff deal with the administrative workload of tracking permits and fees, Boyden said.

Another change permits utilities to install underground lines outside public rights of way when a new development is built, which would avoid the fees. But Boyden said the town would not have received fees in those cases because it only controls the rights of way along town roads. Streets within new developments typically remain private at least until a new project is completed.

Town Manager Rick McGuire defended the practice of meeting with businesses and individuals subject to pending regulation. He said such meetings are useful because they allow the town to find flaws in ordinances before they are adopted.

“What we’re trying to do at the staff level is to improve the ordinance, and certainly gaining input by those being regulated by the ordinance is valuable,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we necessarily agree 100 percent.”

Selectboard member Chris Roy said he had no problem with such meetings as long as the process is transparent and the board is aware of changes that were made as a result. He said changes to the original proposal should be confined to technical issues, leaving policy questions to the board.

Such meetings are not uncommon. Members of the town planning staff, for example, often discuss new projects with developers in advance of formal approval.

The Selectboard may further discuss the utility ordinance at its meeting next week. McGuire said another public hearing will then be scheduled.