Hinesburg selectboard hears update on Vermont Gas protesters

Protestors demonstrated at Hinesburg’s Geprags Park this fall. Photo by Jim Mendell
Protestors demonstrated at Hinesburg’s Geprags Park this fall. Photo by Jim Mendell

The Hinesburg Selectboard heard an update Nov. 7 on protests regarding a Vermont Gas pipeline project across the street from Geprags Park.

One week following the update, a group of Hinesburg residents filed a lawsuit with the Vermont Supreme Court to halt permanently the Vermont Gas Pipeline from passing through Geprags Park.  Earlier this fall, the utility said it planned on using horizontal directional drilling in a move to preserve wetlands.  William Marks, Nancy Baker, Linda Gage, Rachel Smolker, Mei-Aniw Pulley, Lawrence Shelton and Stephanie Spencer brought the case to the state’s highest court.

Beth Parent, Vermont Gas spokeswoman, noted the project’s importance, saying, “There are thousands of families and businesses waiting on cleaner, more affordable energy. It’s unfortunate that this small group of individuals is delaying the project from being completed so that service can begin to customers this heating season,” Parent wrote. “We look forward to the Supreme Court’s ruling on this matter in the near future.”

Given by Hinesburg Community Police Sgt. Caleb Casco, the Nov. 7 update outlined how events unfolded during the Oct. 20 protest. Six people were arrested during the event and were charged with disorderly conduct, unlawful restraint and criminal trespass, per a press release issued by Hinesburg Community Police Chief Frank Koss. They were cited at the town police station, then released.

Casco said he gave board members the update because he was on duty the day of the protest and was at the scene.
Those charged during the protest had a court appearance in Burlington Tuesday at 8am, according to an email sent by Koss. Koss didn’t attend last week’s Selectboard meeting.

Casco told the board that 100 people attended the protest, noting police were concerned about protesters’ safety, after they decided to walk on Shelburne Falls Road. As a result, law-enforcement authorities blocked traffic on the roadway during the time when people objecting to the pipeline were in the street.

Protesters marched to and walked onto a Hinesburg resident’s private property where pipeline construction work was occurring. Police advised protesters to leave the site, warning them they were trespassing on private property, according to Casco, adding Vermont Gas didn’t ask for the protesters to move, but the property owner did. The police sergeant didn’t publicly name the land owner during the meeting, noting the person worried about “repercussions” stemming from the request and event, Casco said. Casco added that some protesters climbed onto construction equipment at the site, Casco said.
Arrests were made after a “group within the protesters” didn’t allow construction workers to leave the site, Casco said.
In addition to officers from Hinesburg, Shelburne Police, the Chittenden County Sheriff’s Department and Vermont State Police assisted at the site. “It took all of the officers we have, with the exception of our part-time guys, who have full-time jobs and who had to be there. Some of our guys worked an 18-hour day.”

Hinesburg Police put in 55 man-hours and spent $1,500 from its salary-line budget item to work on the case, Casco reported to the board, adding he wasn’t certain about the time used to prepare for the protest. He said Koss had that information, but Casco and Koss didn’t have a chance to discuss the information, Casco added.

Following Casco’s report, Selectboard member Andrea Morgante questioned why the board wasn’t informed regarding the use of police at the site. “It’s an expenditure of budget,” Morgante said. “…The Selectboard could have been notified that the police were planning on doing it…that’s just my opinion.”

Selectboard Chairman Michael Bissonette appeared concerned about Morgante’s remarks regarding use of police. He wondered what would have occurred if the Selectboard declined to approve a police presence at the site during the protest, adding, “it’s the police chief’s job to keep protesters safe, too.”

Later in the meeting, Morgante continued to express concern regarding the lack of notification, noting town officials received updates on the protest throughout the day, but got scant notice regarding advance police planning about the event.
“I think Koss did his job correctly,” she said. “All I’m saying is that when there’s a mock crash held on CVU Road, we get notified. There are certain things we get notified about and there are things we don’t….” Morgante backed away from her concerns regarding advance notice on police preparation about the protest after information from the Oct. 3 Selectboard meeting noted that both local and state law enforcement were aware of the upcoming event. She apologized, noting, “I admit I missed that.” She appeared grateful the information was brought to her attention.

During the back and forth between Bissonette and Morgante, Selectboard member Tom Ayer weighed in. “In my mind, (Chief) Koss was just doing his job. I wouldn’t want to be notified every time something like this comes up. The people who were there could have stayed on Geprags land, but they chose to walk on private property. That’s where I have the problem.”