MADISON — Residents will gather tonight at a public hearing to discuss new developments in the town’s proposal to build a natural gas pipeline through central Maine.

What’s different this time is that town officials are broadening their approach and, among other things, might consider joining efforts with a private company.

They said approval of a $72 million bond question at the polls March 13 would not only grant selectmen the authority to possibly pursue building the pipeline from Richmond to Madison, but to research other projects that include the following:

* constructing a local gas distribution system to serve only Madison homes and businesses;

* buying natural gas from the company that currently trucks it to Madison Paper Industries and distributing it via the local distribution system;

* or forming a public-private partnership with an interested company to reduce the town’s cost of constructing a pipeline through central Maine.

“It’s the feeling of the board that we want to consider all options, and some of these options have developed in the past 60 to 90 days. We aren’t in a position where we can drive a stake in the ground and say this is it,” Town Manager Dana Berry said Tuesday. “We need some authority to go forward, and it would certainly be our intent to keep the citizens of Madison informed as we progress.”

The public hearing will start at 7 tonight at the Madison Area Junior High School.

It’s the last chance for residents to hear directly from town officials before they vote from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Tuesday, March 13, at the municipal building.

After narrowly defeating the question in November, residents gathered petitions with 320 verified signatures to bring the pipeline matter to another vote. This time, though, the ballot question will be worded slightly differently to allow for the wider range of options.

It will also be worded to allow the town to pursue either revenue bonds or general obligation bonds.

Revenue bonds are slightly more costly but would be paid for with the revenue generated by the pipeline. General obligation bonds are backed by the town’s taxing authority.

Berry said either type of bond would still be cheaper than private financing. Portland-based Kennebec Valley Gas Co. is also attempting to construct a line through 12 communities and has spoken against Madison’s proposal.

In a new development, Berry said two companies have approached the town and said “they would be willing to invest some equity and become a partner with Madison should it choose to build a pipeline from Richmond to Madison.”

He declined to name the companies.

If it turns out to be a better option, he said the town might also consider building distribution lines beneath the streets in town and either connect them to Kennebec Valley Gas’ line or get the natural gas from the company that trucks it to Madison Paper.

One thing that has not changed, he said, is that selectmen will not pursue any project unless it provides a benefit to residents.

“The board has made it quite clear that unless the town can offer some return on investment to the taxpayers then it will not proceed. But we need a positive vote in order to go to the (Maine Public Utilities Commission) and ask the PUC to consider our request for some reasonable rate of return,” he said.

There has been a question about whether a town can lower residents’ tax commitments with revenue generated by a pipeline. Some people have argued that the law prohibits a municipality from generating a profit, while others say the public utilities commission has final say.

At a town-hall style meeting in Madison on Feb. 23, Gov. Paul LePage said he thought it would be best for a private company to build a natural gas pipeline.

Erin Rhoda — 612-2368

[email protected]

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