Attorney Joe Lovett, Executive Director of the non-profit Appalachian Mountain Advocates, speaks during a meeting in Green Bank on November 14. Lovett provided advice to landowners whose property is in the path of a proposed 42-inch natural gas pipeline. The meeting was sponsored by the Greenbrier River Watershed Association (GRWA). On the right is GRWA spokesperson Elise Keaton.
Attorney Joe Lovett, Executive Director of the non-profit Appalachian Mountain Advocates, speaks during a meeting in Green Bank on November 14. Lovett provided advice to landowners whose property is in the path of a proposed 42-inch natural gas pipeline. The meeting was sponsored by the Greenbrier River Watershed Association (GRWA). On the right is GRWA spokesperson Elise Keaton.

As a confederation of energy companies seeks land for a natural gas pipeline project, a local group is taking action to make sure Pocahontas County landowners understand their rights.

The Greenbrier River Watershed Association (GRWA) has joined several other groups in opposition to a proposed large-diameter gas pipeline through northern Pocahontas County. The GRWA hosted a public meeting in Green Bank last Friday afternoon to provide information on landowner’s rights.

Dominion Resources, Inc., and three corporate partners have proposed construction of a 42-inch gas pipeline from West Virginia to North Carolina. As currently proposed, the pipeline would pass through Randolph County, northern Pocahontas County and central Highland County, Virginia – including approximately 30 miles of national forest. The proposed pipeline path crosses numerous waterways, including Shavers Fork and the West and East Forks of the Greenbrier River.

Dominion filed an initial project application, known as a pre-filing, with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on October 31. If the project receives FERC approval, Dominion will be granted federal eminent domain power to forcibly acquire necessary property rights. Dominion wants to conduct surveys along its desired pipeline route and has sought landowner permission to enter onto property.

A November 11 email from Dominion states that about 10 percent of landowners in the proposed pipeline’s path have denied permission for surveyors to come onto their property. In West Virginia, five landowners have denied permission. In Virginia, 189 owners have denied permission and, in North Carolina, 32 property owners have denied permission for project surveyors to come onto their land.

Dominion’s email contains a copy of a letter that will be sent to West Virginia landowners who have denied access to their property. The letter claims that West Virginia law allows Dominion surveyors to enter property without the owner’s permission.

However, a handout distributed at Friday’s meeting states that Dominion does not have that right yet.

“A pipeline company’s right to survey must be backed by a legal document,” the handout reads. “If the surveyor cannot produce a document, you do not have to let him or her onto your property. There is a statute in West Virginia that addresses surveying by corporations that are seeking the power of eminent domain. That statute, contrary to what you may hear from pipeline representatives, allows surveying only for projects determined to be for public use, a determination that has not been made by a West Virginia court for the ACP pipeline. If a pipeline representative asks you to sign a document allowing it onto your property, do not do so until you obtain legal advice.”

Dominion’s letter threatens legal action against landowners who continue to refuse surveys.

”Unfortunately, if ACP [Dominion/Atlantic Coast Pipeline] is not able to obtain your consent to the surveys, ACP intends to file a lawsuit to secure a court order granting access,” the letter reads. “That is not ACP’s preference, which is the reason for this final request. I would, therefore, ask that you reconsider your position and grant permission for ACP to conduct its preliminary survey work so that legal proceedings can be avoided.”

At Friday’s meeting, Joe Lovett, Executive Director of Appalachian Mountain Advocates, said the group would represent any landowner who is sued by Dominion for survey access.

“Somebody is going to say, ‘you cannot come on my property to survey,’ and the pipeline company is going to take that person to court to determine whether or not it has that right,” he said. “West Virginia has not decided that yet. I think that’s a pretty good case. If anybody has such a case and they want a lawyer, who will represent them for free, come and talk to me. Appalachian Mountain Advocates would consider representing somebody who did not want their property surveyed. We would not charge at all if we decided to do that.”

If FERC approves Dominion’s project, Dominion will obtain federal eminent domain power. If Dominion cannot reach an agreement with a landowner for the purchase of a pipeline easement, it will take the easement forcibly, using its eminent domain power.

The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits a government taking of property without just compensation. Landowners must be paid the fair market value of any easement they relinquish. However, fair market value does not include compensation for aesthetic damage, which is of great value to many property owners.

Lovett, an attorney, advised landowners to consult an attorney before signing any agreement with a gas company.

“Please, whatever your view is, if you end up being forced to sell through eminent domain, or you want to sell now, make sure that you find a lawyer,” he said. “You will get a better deal if you hire a lawyer. If you can’t afford to pay by the hour, find somebody who will work on a contingency basis, and that contingency basis should be based on the difference between your original offer and what that lawyer recovers for you.”

Lovett said educational campaigns by groups like the GRWA would create a better outcome for everybody.

“There are a lot of options, we are very early in this process,” he said. “We’re not too late. This is a good time for us to start talking about whether this pipeline is good for our region and, if it happens, to make sure that people here are compensated fairly.”

For more information, see the GRWA website at greenbrier.org and the Appalachian Mountain Advocates website at appalmad.org on the Internet. Lovett can be contacted at 304-645-9006 or jlovett@appalmad.org.