MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — A federal judge has ordered the Vermont Public Service Board to open a hearing on a gas pipeline project to the public, despite the board's fears that protesters may disrupt it.
U.S. District Judge Christina Reiss agreed in a decision released late Monday with critics of the Vermont Gas Systems plan that it would violate the First Amendment to bar them from the hearing.
The board approved the proposed pipeline running from Chittenden County south to Middlebury in December of 2013. At issue now is an eminent domain proceeding in which Vermont Gas wants to use a right of way in a Hinesburg park — the last property on the roughly 40-mile route for which the company still lacks that legal right to build.
"Foremost in our minds has been the disruptive behavior that repeatedly occurred in the board hearing room this winter at prehearing conferences involving VGS," the board wrote in an order last month announcing its intention to close the Aug. 4 hearing. It later said it would admit members of the media and live-stream the meeting online for public viewing.
"During these proceedings, many members of the public rose from their seats in the hearing room and raised their voices loudly in song, refusing to heed appeals from the hearing officers to lower their voices so as not to interfere with the proceedings," the board said.
The judge questioned whether the board could have asked police to remove anyone being disruptive.
"In the disrupted VGS pipeline proceedings, law enforcement neither asked any disruptive participants to leave, nor forcibly escorted them from the proceedings. As a result, there is no evidence that they would refuse to do so in response to a lawful command," Reiss wrote.
The judge sided with Lisa Barrett, a retired lawyer who had worked as an assistant attorney general. The Huntington resident said she lived a 10-minute drive from Hinesburg's Geprags Park and liked to walk her dog there.
"I'm delighted that the court has upheld the public's right to be at this hearing," Barrett said Tuesday. She said she opposes the project for several reasons, one of them being the potency of the methane that can leak as a greenhouse gas from natural gas facilities.
Requests for comment from lawyers representing the board drew no immediate reply on Tuesday.