By: Elizabeth Gribkoff for VTDigger, Jan. 2, 2019

Vermont’s lone natural gas utility has announced that it is halting plans to expand service to Bristol.

In a letter to the state’s Public Utility Commission in December, Eileen Simollardes, Vermont Gas Systems’ vice president of regulatory affairs, states that the utility has “paused its permitting efforts” due to a pending lawsuit.

“Whether permitting efforts resume will depend on several factors including the legal and permitting challenges surrounding the Bristol expansion,” she wrote.

Vermont Gas sought approval from the town earlier this year to connect Bristol residents to the natural gas pipeline that runs from Colchester to Middlebury. A proposed spur would run along Route 116 into Bristol, with offshoot distribution lines along downtown streets. The company needs to obtain permits from the town and go through Act 250 review for the expansion.

A group of 37 Bristol residents sued the selectboard and Vermont Gas last summer for not holding a town vote, or providing public notice of residents’ right to petition for a vote, before signing a license agreement.

The opponents’ attorney, James Dumont, said the issue is whether “a right given to a gas company in perpetuity” to install and maintain gas lines in the town right of way is subject to a Vermont law that requires municipalities to provide notice of proposed property transfers — and of residents’ right to petition for a town vote on the matter.

The statute in question, 24 V.S.A. § 1061, has not previously been tested in court, he added.

Dumont said that he was “not surprised to see that letter” from Vermont Gas because he had recently searched for an Act 250 permit application for the project and had not found one.

Whether the gas company will apply for an Act 250 permit for the Bristol expansion depends on the outcome of the lawsuit, said Beth Parent, communications manager for Vermont Gas.