Utility ordinance tabled once again (11/12/09)

Power, phone companies raise issues

Nov. 12, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Opposition from utility companies again delayed passage of an ordinance that would impose fees when underground electrical, telephone and gas lines are installed.

The Selectboard held a public hearing last week on the ordinance. The board seemed poised to pass it after numerous other discussions on the topic and extensive input from utility companies over the past several months.

But representatives from Green Mountain Power, FairPoint Communications and Vermont Electric Cooperative each attended the Nov. 2 hearing and urged the board to reconsider the ordinance. They presented a letter to the board with fresh concerns about the new fees.

“That kind of surprised me,” Selectboard member Ted Kenney said. “I think that’s why we postponed the hearing, because board members hadn’t even seen the letter.”

“They were relatively new arguments,” Kenney added, “or arguments framed a different way.”

The ordinance would allow the town to recoup costs associated with dodging the tangle of wires and pipes installed in the rights-of-way next to roads. Officials say buried lines increase the time it takes town employees to repair things such as culverts and sewer lines.

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 the town’s rights-of-way. Under the ordinance, 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 other areas. Boring horizontally, so-called “trenchless technology” where lines are installed parallel to the ground, would also cost $1 per linear foot.

That later provision had previously prompted complaints from Vermont Gas, which increasingly uses the method to install lines. The fee was reduced, with town officials saying they wanted to encourage that kind of installation, which is thought to have a smaller impact on above-ground vegetation and nearby pavement.

The other utility companies outlined their concerns in a three-page letter presented to the Selectboard. It argued that the ordinance fails to make a distinction between upgrading and repairing lines and installing new ones.

It also restates a complaint voiced months ago by Vermont Gas: That the ordinance will greatly drive up costs, which will then be passed on to customers in the form of higher rates.

Mary Morris, legal assistant for Green Mountain Power, said GMP wants to know in advance how much the ordinance will increase the cost of installing and maintaining lines.

She said GMP does not have a problem with the idea of charging excavation fees. The power company just wants to ensure fees are proportionate to actual costs incurred by the town.

The letter from the utility companies says the new fees would substantially increase the cost of moving lines underground. For example, if a homeowner wanted to upgrade to underground service, the fee would add $475 to the cost, about 10 percent of the total price tag.

Another issue raised in the letter is whether the ordinance would require above-ground lines to be placed underground when they are repaired or replaced. If so “the costs would be astronomical,” the letter stated. The utilities requested the ordinance include a grandfather clause covering such situations.

The ordinance is not intended to force utilities to install existing lines underground, said Town Manager Rick McGuire. He said the town will continue its long-standing practice of requiring new lines to be installed underground while allowing existing lines to remain overhead.

The Selectboard may reconsider the ordinance at a meeting this month.