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Voters to consider proposal for natural gas franchise

by Lex Thomas

On October 22, the Board of Selectmen voted in favor of holding a special town meeting on November 12, which will enable residents to decide if they want to allow the Sterling Municipal Light Department to acquire natural gas franchise rights for the town. The SMLD has been exploring the possibility of bringing natural gas service to Sterling for several years. The first step in the process took place at a special town meeting last December, at which time an article passed with an 87 percent vote in favor, giving the SMLD the go-ahead to explore possible methods for acquiring franchise rights. A “yes” vote at the second special town meeting would give the SMLD the legal right to negotiate contracts and terms that are in the best interests of Sterling residents and businesses, although it doesn’t commit them to follow through with construction in the event that the project is determined to not be financially or practically feasible. A “no” vote would put an end to the SMLD’s efforts regarding natural gas service, preventing any further progress on the issue for at least two years.

The most immediate result of a vote in favor of natural gas, in addition to securing gas franchise rights, would be intensive research into how best to bring the resource into town.

SMLD General Manager Sean Hamilton says that among the available options, building a transmission pipeline along I-190 would give ideal access with minimal disruption to the town’s infrastructure. Various investors are proposing building a pipeline from Fitchburg to Worcester.

Although there are existing pipelines in Leominster, West Boylston, and Clinton, the cost of accessing those lines would be considerably higher than accessing a transmission pipeline through our own local distribution company.

Another option would be to use compressed gas, which trucks would bring from an existing compression station in New England to an unloading station in Sterling, likely located in the industrial area off Pratts Junction Road, where the gas would be decompressed and distributed to homes and businesses via pipes. Hamilton expects that two trucks per day would be needed to supply enough natural gas for the town.

Hamilton estimates that it would take three to four years to complete a transmission pipeline, whereas the compressed gas infrastructure could be operational within as little as 18 months.

SMLD Board Chair Michael Rivers says that while a transmission pipeline is preferable for the long term, compressed gas offers a good way to expedite the process of bringing natural gas to town while pipeline construction is underway.

Rivers firmly believes that making natural gas available in Sterling will significantly enhance the town’s future economic growth, as both prospective residents and business owners increasingly prefer natural gas, especially for heating, on account of its considerably lower cost compared to other fuel sources. In August, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that the market price for a million BTUs of natural gas was $14.70, compared to $25.71 for heating oil, $36.07 for propane, and $38.25 for electricity.

“For businesses, energy is the second highest cost after salaries,” says Rivers, adding that the town’s lack of natural gas service has deterred some potential investors from locating businesses in Sterling, especially since natural gas is available in most surrounding municipalities, including Leominster and West Boylston. In fact, Sterling is one of the eastern-most towns in Massachusetts (along with the Islands, Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet, Westport, and Douglas) without natural gas service available.

Many realtors who sell property in Sterling agree that potential homeowners would like to have the option of choosing natural gas. Century 21 Center Home Team’s Clara Gorczynski says she fully supports bringing natural gas service to Sterling. “A lot of prospective buyers are surprised that we don’t have natural gas here, especially as it’s available in so many other towns,” she says, adding that most would prefer it for heating, due to cost.

Paula Savard of Aberman Associates in Lancaster works with many clients who are downsizing and relocating from cities where they’ve had natural gas, and definitely want it. “Most homebuyers considering Sterling know we don’t have natural gas here, so they may decide to go with propane instead. They definitely don’t want oil,” she says.

Judy Reynolds of Evergreen Realty, who works with a lot of new construction projects that use propane, says that many homeowners prefer propane for cooking and for gas fireplaces, and that natural gas would be an even better option in terms of cost and ease of handling.

But Lauren Demerjian of Open Door Real Estate doesn’t entirely agree, calling the issue “a mixed bag.” Clients have recently asked her whether natural gas will result in a betterment tax, and whether the tax will be mandatory whether or not a homeowner decides to switch to natural gas. (Hamilton says there won’t be a betterment tax, and the cost of the system will be paid for by the users.) Prospective homeowners have also expressed concern that resulting business development might change the rural and agrarian nature of the community.

“People are in favor of natural gas heating in homes because of the lower cost,” she says, “but they’re asking about the costs of switching out an existing furnace to gas heating, and whether there will be any incentive offered to homeowners.”

While Gary Griffin of Sholan Realty generally agrees that natural gas service would be beneficial, he wonders how available it would be to Sterling’s widespread area and scattered population, and how long it will take for it to be available throughout the town.

“I live in a part of town that only got cable television eight or 10 years after it became available here,” he says. “I don’t have town water, and I don’t expect to have natural gas. How many customers will really have the choice of getting natural gas, and at what point in the future?” He added that while there are advantages of gas heating, the areas of Sterling that will be the first to have access to natural gas are not areas where new construction is taking place.

In the November 8 issue of Sterling Meetinghouse News, we’ll explore the cost and timeline for bringing natural gas service to the different areas of Sterling.