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Standing up for the land: Locals testify at hearing on allowing energy projects on protect land


Recorder Staff
Tuesday, November 10, 2015
(Published in print: Wednesday, November 11, 2015)

Opponents and even some proponents of natural gas pipeline projects testified for more than four hours Tuesday about whether to allow energy projects on state-protected land.

Although the proposal before the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight would allow about 4 miles of Otis State Forest in the Berkshire County town of Sandisfield for Tennessee Gas Pipeline’s proposed Connecticut Expansion Project, it was presented by dozens of residents and legislators as potentially setting a precedent to opening up dozens of other parcels protected under Article 97 of the state Constitution to development for the TGP’s Northeast Energy Direct pipeline.

“Although this may seem like a fairly small project,” said state Rep. Stephen Kulik, who also penned an opposition letter signed as well by reps. Paul Mark and Susannah Whipps Lee, and Sen. Benjamin Downing and nine other legislators, it’s incredibly important in providing for the future picture of the environment. … What the committee and Legislature does with this Sandisfield land will set a very important precedent dealing with the NED project.”

Orchardist Ben Clark of Deerfield, who said he’d driven to Boston at 4 a.m. and was one of the first speakers to testify after public officials, told the panel chaired by Rep. Peter Kocot, D-Northampton, that endorsing the Sandisfield property would set “a very dangerous precedent,” and that while his family’s 250-acre, fourth-generation fruit farm would not be affected by the gas pipeline route, having state-protected farmland makes it possible for younger farmers to practice agriculture.

“This shouldn’t be happening, and frankly we shouldn’t be here today,” Clark said, “taking all the time of everyone in this room who have much better things to do.”

Franklin Land Trust Executive Director Richard Hubbard said it’s “incomprehensible to me that we would be here today discussing legislation that would denigrate one of the jewels of the state forest system.”

Although the legislation, filed by Rep. Garrett Bradley, D-Hingham, on behalf of the pipeline company, would seem to affect only 30 acres in Berkshire County, Hubbard said, he fears “It would invite a series of assaults on protected land for years to come,” including “a swath of destruction across the commonwealth” by the Northeast Energy Direct project, which could cut across eight Franklin County towns through public and private protected lands.

TGP President Kimberly Watson testified that being proposed entirely within or “directly adjacent to existing pipeline rights of way, the Connecticut Expansion project would have the “least impact on the land,” and that increased natural gas capacity from the Connecticut project “should help bolster system reliability and available natural gas supplies regionally, including in Massachusetts, contributing to a moderation of fuel costs.”

She said the company has developed a “mitigation package” to provide compensation for the lost of public land.

“The mitigation plan we have put in place provides compensation of equal or greater value to the easement we are seeking, ensures there will no net loss of public lands, and includes land management activities. … TGP adheres to strict environmental standards,” Watson said.

Sandisfield Selectboard Chairwoman Alice Boyd spoke against the Article 97 taking and told the panel that the pipeline company had withdrawn a Community Benefits Agreement offer to the town for more than $1 million last night without explanation.

A company spokesman told The Recorder, “We continue to negotiate with the town’s representatives. … There is a road repair and remediation package on the table. There is, however, a technical problem with some of the legal language that needs be worked out.”

Among those who testified, several manufacturing executives spoke of the need to lower and stabilize the region’s natural gas prices, while spokesmen for some of the 60 organizations, according to Kulik, that have written in opposition to the proposal, spoke of the ecological effects on wetlands and other preserved properties that could be affected if they are disrupted by gas pipelines.

Others testifying, like Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust Executive Director Leigh Youngblood, argued against the Article 97 release, emphasizing that the Constitutional amendment was approved by a unanimous vote of the Legislature in 1970 and ratified by the state’s voters two years later out of a need to preserve land of significant environmental value.

“Distinctive public resources should not be sacrificed for projects of questionable merit when less destructive alternatives are available,” said Youngblood, adding that more than 100 other conservation properties totaling 27,400 acres across the state are at risk from the NED pipeline.

You can reach Richie Davis at: rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 269