Mountain valley sues landowners to gain pipeline easements and access through eminent domain business roanoke.com electricity electricity schoolhouse rock

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Mountain Valley’s 196-page lawsuit, filed in Roanoke Tuesday, notes that the project received approval Oct. 13 from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. FERC’s order grants Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC the authority through the Natural Gas Act to condemn private property to obtain easements for the pipeline and related access roads and workspaces.

The company’s lawsuit asks the court to grant Mountain Valley the property rights sought by the litigation and an order granting “immediate access and entry prior to the determination of just compensation upon the posting of an appropriate bond.”

The 303-mile, $3.7 billion pipeline would transport natural gas at high pressure through a buried, 42-inch diameter steel pipe. The pipeline would begin in Wetzel County, West Virginia, and end at the Transco pipeline near Chatham. Its route would travel through 11 counties in West Virginia and six in Virginia: Giles, Craig, Montgomery, Roanoke, Franklin and Pittsylvania.

Carolyn Reilly, her husband, Ian Reilly, and her parents, Dave and Betty Werner, are among the landowners sued by Mountain Valley. Their farm in Franklin County is on a pipeline route. The family had defied all efforts by surveyors to study the 58-acre farm until a court order in September prohibited them from interfering.

On Friday morning, she had not yet heard about the lawsuit, and it seemed other property owners named as defendants, including Bob and Donna Jones in Montgomery County, were in the same boat. At a pipeline-related forum Thursday evening in Roanoke no one mentioned the litigation.

“This latest strong-arm tactic of MVP, filing a lawsuit against individual property owners, abuses our rights as citizens of the United States,” Reilly said. “We look forward to the court hearings as they will further prove the negligence, irresponsibility and greed of a for-profit corporation seeking eminent domain for private gain.”

Reilly said she and others will “stand firm in our commitment to preserve and protect the water and defend the land for future generations” and she advised fellow landowners to continue resisting easement negotiations sought by land agents working for Mountain Valley.

Diana Christopulos, a regional environmental watchdog whose property would not be affected, reacted in an email Friday to the lawsuit. She and other residents of the region opposed to the project contend eminent domain should not be available to a private company for a pipeline that many argue would yield little public benefit.

“This is the ugly reality of federal eminent domain for private gain,” Christopulos said. “Mountain Valley Pipeline, a company whose major owner and major customer is EQT — a Pittsburgh fracking company — would forcibly take private property from dozens of unwilling landowners so that they can export natural gas to other nations and states.

FERC’s order of Sept. 13, reflecting a 2-1 decision by commissioners, cited the Natural Gas Act and found that the gas the pipeline would transport would be in the public interest. A separate order that night reached the same conclusion about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

In February, when Mountain Valley land agents were approaching property owners about acquiring easements, Lollar said that landowners should hire lawyers experienced in easement negotiations “because the easement language MVP, ACP and other gas companies is using is broad, complicated and somewhat unlimited, and owners generally cannot understand the impact of these permanent easements on their property.”

Generally, lawyers who represent property owners in easement negotiations take as their fee either a percentage of the additional amount paid for the easement over the initial appraisal and offer, or an hourly rate, flat fee or combination, he said.

Among the potential consequences of negotiating without experienced representation is the risk, Lollar said, of “being grossly under-compensated.” He and other lawyers familiar with eminent domain cases have said easement payments should compensate property owners for anticipated loss of value of the larger property.

FERC’s order of Sept. 13 said the commission had concluded that “the proposed project is not likely to significantly impact property values in the project areas” — a conclusion refuted by a number of real estate professionals attempting to sell properties along the proposed routes of the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines and by at least one property appraisal in the New River Valley.

The heated debate about a private company having access to federal eminent domain to acquire easements has, in some cases, stirred united opposition to the pipeline among groups that might not ordinarily find common ground. For example, groups and individuals opposed to the Mountain Valley Pipeline because of anticipated environmental damage have received support from political conservatives who are staunch advocates of private property rights.

Two separate lawsuits, one filed on behalf of landowners along the route of the Mountain Valley Pipeline and the other for property owners along the routes of both pipelines, challenge the constitutionality of the Natural Gas Act and FERC having the authority to confer the power of eminent domain to a private company when a project does not provide clear evidence that it serves a public good.

Among other allegations, the lawsuit contends that FERC’s process for establishing whether a pipeline project will serve a true public benefit is deeply flawed and violates the U.S. Constitution. And it argues that when Congress amended the Natural Gas Act of 1938 in 1947 and gave FERC’s predecessor the authority to grant eminent domain, it did so without sufficient guidance.