While landowners should take a moment to celebrate the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, (ACP), we also need to remember that now is the time to get damage repaired and the company owns easements across our land. Dominion has said that it will not ask that we return any money we have received, but it has not decided what it will repair or what to do about the easements. It could use them or sell them to others. The risk to us is that it could be claimed at some future point. We can’t forget this claim on our property that supersedes our use of our property as long as it exists. Since eminent domain was threatened or used to obtain these easements for a project Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) declared to be of public benefit, it seems only fair that easements be released since they will not be used for that specific use.
Many landowners have damage from tree cutting along the easement. In many cases, the trees were cut two years ago and nothing further has been done. Normal weeds and invasive species brought in by the tree cutters are growing. Fences, gates, and driveways may have damage. There is no single solution for repairing the damage.
We are in unknown territory right now. ACP has already announced its financial loss on the pipeline project so it cannot include the value of easements in that amount. Some of the eminent domain attorneys are already working with North Carolinians to address this issue. The question has been raised of whether FERC has the authority to tell ACP to give back easements awarded it through the courts via eminent domain.
Buckingham county has already rescinded the zoning variance, the special use permit, it made to allow the compressor station. That land is once again zoned for agricultural use. The speed with which the county moved to protect the land gives us a signal about the importance of not having easements hanging over us. Like the county, we don’t want to be informed years down the road that the company will act on that easement and force another project across our property without any consideration of our use of our property.
Some of us, including the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC,) told FERC that we want our easements back when we had a 15-day opportunity to respond to ACP’s request to FERC have a year to close out the project and additional time to decide what to do with the section in West Virginia.
Some people think that unless they repay the money they cannot ask for return of their easement. However, those who received money have already paid taxes on it. If they worked with an attorney, they paid attorney fees. If they went to court, they had costs for multiple property assessments, transcripts for depositions, preparation of exhibits, and travel and job absence costs, for example. Many landowners spent hours learning about what was happening and attempting to protect land. We did not ask for this pipeline project, but had many costs over the last six years without even mentioning the emotional stress, anguish and personal conflicts experienced. Many landowners did not receive enough money to come even close to paying these costs.
Right now landowners may want to take any available opportunity to express the desire to have damage repaired and to regain easement ownership to political leaders and company representatives. We need to work together and support each other through this process. Some of us may also want to work toward getting state and federal laws changed to better protect landowners in the future. Stay tuned as we work with our allies to forge a reasonable plan.
It’s not over yet!
Irene Ellis Leech, Ph.D., is a Buckingham native who graduated from Buckingham County High School and Virginia Tech. She is an owner/operator of Mt. Rush Farm and is employed by Virginia Tech currently teaching Consumer Studies. She has also been an Extension Consumer Education Specialist and on the State 4-H Staff and she taught at Appalachian State University. An active consumer advocate in Virginia and nationally, she is involved in a number of organizations and coalitions. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would have bisected the family farm for 1.1 mile and her home in Montgomery County, VA is within the evacuation zone of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.