Ashfield joins gas pipeline opposition
ASHFIELD — This hilltown has officially joined the opposition to the proposed Kinder Morgan gas pipeline.
About 200 voters at the special town meeting this week passed two resolutions intended to signal the community’s resolve to keep the pipeline out.
“We’ve been working since March 11, our first meeting, toward this,” said Anna Fessenden, a founder of the ad-hoc community group Hilltown Community Rights, which put the two articles — the only business of the night — on the special town meeting warrant by citizen petition.
Fessenden said she doesn’t subscribe to the idea that such business is all in the government’s hands, pointing to gay marriage and women’s suffrage as examples of citizen-led law.
“We just have to stand in the way of the bulldozers and say ‘no, not here,’” Fessenden said.
The resolutions are nonbinding instructions to the town’s representatives at the local, state and federal levels. The first seeks to establish a system to address all large-scale, outsider-led developments and put decisions in the hands of residents, and the second explicitly calls for resistance to the pipeline proposed to pass through Ashfield and neighboring communities on its way from New York state to Dracut.
Both motions were presented and discussed largely in terms of Kinder Morgan subsidiary Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co.’s proposed natural gas pipeline, with references to possible wind farm and telecommunications projects in the presentation of the first article.
As seen in early maps, the pipeline could cut through Ashfield and eight other Franklin County towns. Formerly called the Northeast Expansion Project, the pipeline was to run from Wright, N.Y. to Dracut, but has since been absorbed into a longer proposed line. Now dubbed the Northeast Energy Direct Project, the proposed pipeline stretches back to Pennsylvania to connect to a line from the Marcellus and Utica shale fields.
“The point is simply for us to make a statement,” Fessenden said of the nature of the resolutions.
Two state legislators were in attendance and a third sent a representative. Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, and state Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, described the resolutions passed in individual towns as ammunition in the arguments they will have to make.
Downing said the pipeline issue has risen to a top priority, alongside broadband access, for western Massachusetts legislators, but the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission won’t feel legally constrained by the resolutions passed in individual towns.
“I do believe it helps build both public awareness and support and can help us make the case to try and at least heighten the level of review, if not stop it outright,” he said.
“The FERC has pretty extraordinary powers ... most of which override state legislation,” Kulik said.
Kulik said he and Downing are both on record saying they will not support the removal of conservation restrictions from any land for the project. The project as currently mapped would pass through a variety of protected farm and wild land in towns along the route. Kulik said Article 97 of the state constitution provides opportunity to oppose the pipeline on conservation grounds.
Downing said this is a point where legislators have some leverage, because a two-thirds vote is required in both houses to remove land protections.
“This pipeline will happen if they can make money on it,” Kulik said, and following every possible law and regulation will drive up the cost. The DPU can override landowners’ refusals to allow land surveys,” Kulik said as an example, but the process requires hearings and insisting on holding them in western Massachusetts will raise the cost.
The first article called on leaders to make a town wide vote the ultimate authority in approving all energy infrastructure and other large-scale projects, including wind turbines and gas pipelines, prohibit any activity by developers before a vote and inform residents when such projects are on the horizon. The prohibited activities originally included entering private property, surveying, photographing and negotiating leases. These were struck from the motion through an amendment by resident Michael Fitzgerald, who argued that it’s the right of property owners, not the town, to allow people on their property or throw them off, and that surveys are more likely to result in a project being scrapped than completed. The article included a locals-only exception, applying only to outside corporations.
Some worried the article was dangerously vague. A resident worried a few young farmers could join together as a corporation to lease farm land, and be prevented from doing so as outsiders. Tom Leue of Cape Street said his family’s plans for a community wind project backed by the University of Massachusetts would be hurt. The details of the article were the focus of an hour’s discussion, but it ultimately passed as amended by a strong majority.
A single ‘“no” vote could be heard on the second resolution. That resolution states that the citizens of Ashfield oppose the proposed pipeline’s passage through their and neighboring towns, calls on the Selectboard and all relevant town permitting authorities to contest the pipeline and instructs state and federal legislators to enact legislation and take any other steps to block the pipeline.
Jane Shaney of Conway Road called the town a jewel, listing the town’s high points.
“‘For the greater good,’ they say. What greater good is there than the preservation of our natural resources?” Shaney said.
Abutter Phyllis Kirkpatrick of Bellus Road said the pipeline has already scuttled a bid to buy her farm as she attempts to leave town to move in with her daughter, and said this will happen to other landowners as they age.
Dan Johnson, a representative for Congressman Richard Neal, said he was present to gather information. Johnson said the office hasn’t heard from many on the project, Neal hasn’t come out with a statement and he could not offer an opinion on his behalf, for which he drew some criticism from the assembly.
You can reach Chris Curtis at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 257