Atlantic Coast Pipeline to take landowners to court to clear way for 600-mile project

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is preparing to sue uncooperative property owners to gain access to their land so it can build a 600-mile natural gas pipeline from West Virginia to North Carolina.

The energy consortium, which includes Charlotte-based Duke Energy, said this week that about 20 percent of 2,900 landowners whose properties lie in the path of the proposed underground pipeline have not signed voluntary agreements to allow their land to be used for the project, including an estimated 200 property owners in eight North Carolina counties.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is awaiting all state and federal permits, but it can begin legal proceedings against holdout property owners at any time. This week a spokesman for pipeline partner Dominion Energy said the Atlantic Coast Pipeline expects remaining state permits to be issued by mid-December, reiterating recent comments Dominion CEO Tom Farrell II made to Wall Street analysts.

The regulatory approvals would clear the way for tree removal, boring, trenching and other construction for the pipeline. The project, already a year behind schedule, is expected to start moving natural gas in the second half of 2019.

While the Atlantic Coast Pipeline has undisputed legal authority to use private land for the project, the looming court actions against rural residents touch on sensitive issues of property rights and farming traditions. The Wilson Times newspaper published an editorial denouncing the pipeline’s corporate “land grab” and lamenting the sacrifice of “purloined property.”

Nash County crop farmer Marvin Winstead Jr., who has refused to cooperate on pipeline access, says he’s being subjected to “psychological warfare.” He believes the underground pipeline will compromise the quality of the soil for years and resents out-of-state lawyers and agents dictating the terms of his farm. He said he has no intention to voluntarily cede his property for the project.

“They talk to you as if you’re as dumb as a bump on a log,” Winstead said. “It’s a very well-rehearsed and practiced orchestrated effort.”

Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby said the property seizures, conducted through “eminent domain” proceedings, are a last resort to be used against landowners who don’t voluntarily lease their land for the project and agree to financial compensation for the use of their land.

The payments to property owners, based on real estate appraisals, compensate landowners for allowing utility crews to enter their properties to access the pipeline for the life of the project. The payments also compensate property owners for not growing trees and not erecting buildings on a 50-foot-wide strip above the pipeline.

“We’re making every attempt that we can to reach a mutual agreement with the landowners who have not signed an easement agreement,” Ruby said, noting that such legal disputes are to be expected on a complicated public works project.

“I don’t think you would find a single state or federally permitted linear infrastructure project that has not had to condemn some properties as a last resort,” Ruby said.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline will cross five separate parcels of land owned by Matt Glover and his family in Northampton County and in Southampton County, Va. Glover, a vice president of finance at Glover Construction Co. in Pleasant Hill, said he’s not intimidated by energy companies, as his company does work for them and might do site work, such as grading and excavating, for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Glover said his family negotiated a fair deal for the use of their land, which will continue to be used for crop farming after the pipeline is laid. He is wary of relying on a court in a dispute over land valuations as an unnecessary risk with an uncertain outcome.

“You’re taking it out of your hands then,” Glover said. “I prefer ... to come to a conclusion on my own as opposed to having a third party decide for us both, and it may not go like I want it to go.”

In an interstate eminent domain proceeding, the amount to be paid to landowners will likely be determined by a federal court. In a negotiated settlement, the compensation amount is agreed upon by lawyers on both sides, or simply by the energy consortium’s lawyers reaching an agreement with a property owner.

Joshua Hansen, a Raleigh land use lawyer who expects to represent landowners in the property condemnation proceedings, said the Atlantic Coast Pipeline has a legal right to private property; the only unresolved issue is how much landowners will be paid.

Hansen said that property owners need to be able to step back from the emotions the condemnations elicit and focus on the value of the land.

“It’s important that they don’t take the first offer,” Hansen said. “I’m surprised and really disappointed that 80 percent of the people have resolved these claims. Maybe they weren’t fully compensated to what they were entitled under the law.”

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is designed to bring natural gas from the Marcellus shale and Utica shale formations in Pennsylvania and West Virginia to supply Duke’s natural-gas-fired power plants. Duke has built four natural-gas power plants in North Carolina and South Carolina since 2011 to replace aging coal-burning plants, and has two more under development in both states. By 2032, Duke projects the need for eight additional power plants fueled by natural gas delivered by pipeline to North Carolina from high-production fracking fields.

The project received approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last month and expects state approvals next month from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and its counterparts in Virginia and West Virginia. More than 40 organizations have appealed the federal permit, saying the project is not necessary and poses environmental risks.

Most of the natural gas would run Duke’s power plants but some would be used by homes and businesses for heating. The natural gas would also be available to lure manufacturers and other industries to the Interstate 95 corridor and eastern North Carolina. Duke and Dominion say the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would not only provide natural gas for industries but would also stabilize electricity prices for decades to come to make North Carolina competitive for business development.

The landowners are compensated for the highest and best potential future use of their land, not for the land’s current value. Those whose land can be shown to be likely for future development will be paid more than those whose land had little commercial value.

Glover said most landowners have a good idea of how much their land is worth, but said some go into a funk when dealing with lawyers and land agents.

“People get into a hysteria about things that aren’t necessary reality,” Glover said.

John Murawski: 919-829-8932, @johnmurawski