Evidently some landowners got the memo that it is better for them to opt for condemnation: at worst they get more money than an outright sale.
Typically 100% more if they play their cards right. At best the pipeline does not get built or gets built somewhere else.
This is the story of the Holleran family in Pennsyvlanai – who did not roll-over and play dead for a gas pipeline company.
Constitution Pipeline Threatening PA Landowners With Un-Constitutional Eminent Domain
Yesterday, we accompanied Susquehanna County, PA landowners to the hearing on “quick take” eminent domain condemnation Constitution Pipeline is seeking against them. The pipeline company is a joint partnership led by Williams Partners LLC, also owner of the proposed Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline in Pennsylvania. Partners in the project include Cabot Oil & Gas and Washington Gas & Light.
Constitution Pipeline via their law firm Saul Ewing is asking Judge Malachy Mannion, of the 3rd Circuit Federal Court of Appeals, for “quick take” power to condemn seven properties where landowners have refused an easement agreement for the 100-foot wide pipeline right of way. The Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution requires that “just compensation” be given for any private property seized by eminent domain. If Constitution Pipeline is successful, eminent domain condemnation would occur before the amount of “just compensation” is determined by the court, as hearings on that have not yet occurred.
There was no ruling on the preliminary injunction yesterday, which means that Constitution cannot access those properties on February 16th (Monday) like they were seeking to do. Judge Mannion extended the time for written briefs and arguments to February 24th, after which he will make a ruling.
The attorney for the landowners made a very good argument that the Fifth Amendment would be violated with “quick take”.
In one case, before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, this was held to be true (NORTHERN BORDER PIPELINE COMPANY, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. 86.72 ACRES OF LAND, et al., No. 98-1167. – See more).Unfortunately, Judge Mannion is not bound by the 7th Circuit’s decision, only by other 3rd Circuit and US Supreme Court decisions.
The irrelevant 3rd Circuit case cited by Constitution Pipeline’s attorneys is a recent decision by Judge Marjorie Rendell (ex-governor Ed Rendell’s wife) where Columbia Pipeline sought and was granted “quick take” power for four properties they needed to replace an existing, aging pipeline (COLUMBIA GAS TRANSMISSION, LLC, Appellant v. 1.01 ACRES, MORE OR LESS IN PENN TOWNSHIP, YORK COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA No. 13-4458 – See More).
However, the Constitution Pipeline is a new, or “greenfield”, project and the Columbia Pipeline ruling should not be considered relevant for Judge Mannion.
Other highlights of the day, Elizabeth Witmer from Saul Ewing, the bully lawyer who sent out the intimidating letters to landowners telling them they had to sign easement agreements, was there with a team of attorneys. They wheeled two hand trucks of documents in file boxes into the courtroom and spent the morning shuffling papers around in what could have easily been a Monty Python skit.
They had Matt Swift, the project manager, and Patrick McClusky, the head of land acquisition, testify about the properties. During Swift’s testimony, Constitution methodically pulled up the maps of the properties to enter them in as evidence. Swift stated that in order for Constitution to meet the in-service date of December 2, 2016, they would need to have stream crossings (both wet and dry) completed in June 2015. He stated that pre-construction surveys and tree clearing would need to commence this month in order for that to happen.
Judge Mannion questioned Swift about the ability for Constitution to apply for an extension of the in-service date and Swift admitted that FERC may grant an extension if asked. Judge Mannion seemed like he did not feel compelled by Constitution’s arguments for urgency.
Here is a story by WSKG news radio about the Holleran family, one of the landowners being threatened:
The federal government is considering an application to build a natural gas pipeline from Pennsylvania to Schoharie County in New York. Often, the pipeline companies will use the threat of eminent domain as a way to pressure landowners into signing a lease agreement. But some landowners and activist groups are calling their bluff.
Just a short hike up the hill from Catherine Holleran’s house in New Milford Pennsylvania is a small grove of maple trees.
“This blue main line is for tapping trees. We already took down a bunch of the little tubing because the season is over,” says Holleran.
Holleran has 125 maple trees on her property.
But she may lose all 125 of the trees. Holleran says energy infrastructure company Williams wants to dig out the small maple grove to make room for the proposed pipeline. The 124-mile underground line would run natural gas from fracking sites in Northeastern Pennsylvania to just west of Albany.
But, unlike many of her neighbors, Holleran is refusing to sign a right-of-way agreement with the company. She plans to force them to take it through eminent domain.
The government can use eminent domain to seize a person’s property for projects deemed to be in the public good, like forcing the sale of a home in the path of a new highway.
Holleran’s daughter, Megan, says the land agents use eminent domain as a way to pressure landowners.
“People are scared. Somebody comes and sits there in your house and says if you don’t sign this paper you won’t get any money for this land and we’ll take it anyway. It’s a flat out lie but that’s what they tell them,” says Megan. “They get scared so they get persuaded and talked into it. And then they sign something.”
A small group called Stop The Pipeline has been going door to door to convince landowners that forcing the use of eminent domain is actually a better option then signing an agreement.
According to the group’s website, landowners who sign an agreement lose their right to sue the company, they still have to pay taxes on the leased land, and are liable if anything happens on their property.
Anne Marie Garti is one of the organizers of Stop The Pipeline. Garti says if landowners welcome eminent domain, oil companies can’t intimidate them with the threat of it.
“It’s no longer a single landowner against the pipeline company. It is all of the landowners joined together with everybody else against the pipeline company,” says Garti.
According to Garti’s group, as of the end of January 70 percent of affected landowners in Delaware County and 60 percent in Schoharie County have not signed a lease.
Garti is hoping the opposition leads the federal government to deny the application.
Chris Stockton is a spokesperson for Williams. He says that, while taking resistant property owners to court is more costly; it’s not going to stop the pipeline.
“That’s something that’s built into our schedule. It’s something we plan for,” says Stockton.
Stockton says with a signed agreement the company will pay property owners three times the market value of the land, and they are likely to get less through eminent domain proceedings.
“Instead of those dollars potentially being paid to that landowner, those dollars are going to be paid to attorneys. And at the end of the day nobody wins,” says Stockton.
Back in the house, Catherine Holleran shows off a copy of the right-of-way agreement the company wants her to sign.
“I went through here and I started numbering them because it was ridiculous. I just started writing ‘No no you’re not doing that.’ Some of the stuff I just crossed it off,” says Holleran.
On each page she has used a purple highlighter to mark all the parts she disagrees with.
“So here’s where they gave us for damages, sixteen thousand for damages, for all the damages on the property. When he called me back he said, ‘we’re going to add another thirty three hundred for your maple trees.’ I thought, ‘Are you joking me?’ Thirty three hundred dollars for 50 years worth of maple trees?” says Holleran.
The pipeline company cannot start eminent domain proceedings until the federal government approves the project. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is set to issue an environmental impact study next month with a final decision set for September.
Property Owners Brace for Constitution Pipeline Condemnation
HARFORD TWP. — With the sugaring season ahead, the Holleran family should be installing sap-gathering lines on the mature maple trees growing on their property on Three Lakes Road.
They’re not going to bother this year. They don’t see a point in tapping trees that could soon fall to the chainsaws of Constitution Pipeline Co., which covets a strip of their land roughly 125 feet wide to build a natural gas pipeline to New York.
After two years of planning, public comment and government reviews, Constitution is anxious to get started. The maps are drawn. The pipe is stacked. More than a thousand people are ready to work.
The company needed 130 parcels in Pennsylvania and obtained almost all of them. The only things standing in the way of its Pennsylvania work are the Hollerans and six other holdouts.
In December, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency in charge of approving interstate gas pipelines, gave Constitution its approval to build the brand-new 126-mile line from Susquehanna County to Schoharie County, New York. The FERC’s approval gave Constitution eminent domain power under the Natural Gas Act to acquire easements on properties it picked for the pipeline route.
The company is a joint partnership among Williams Companies, Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., Piedmont Natural Gas Co. and WGL Holdings. The roughly $700 million pipeline would ship 650 million cubic feet of gas per day to markets in New York and New England.
Constitution must compensate the Hollerans and any other landowners whose properties it seeks to condemn. But that process takes time, and Constitution isn’t interested in waiting.
Arguing any delays would cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars a day, Constitution’s lawyers appeared Friday in federal court in Scranton seeking an emergency preliminary injunction that would grant access to the properties to complete surveying and begin cutting trees.
The Hollerans want to make the company work for it. At this point, they don’t have much to lose.
The family loves these 22 acres that Catherine Holleran’s parents bought in the late 1950s, when they escaped to the Endless Mountains from Long Island.
Sturdy maples, cherries and other hardwoods rise from their property’s steep eastern hillside. A small creek-fed lake lies at the bottom of the gentle valley. Across a strip of trees, a grassy field rises to the north. It’s a place for syrup making and snowmobiling in the winter, lake parties and off-roading in the summer.
Constitution’s designs call for a 30-inch pipe laid in an S-shaped strip across 1,670 linear feet of their land. The permanent easement would be 50 feet wide, but the company would fell timber in a wider area to create work space. The family doesn’t want to lose the trees or the quality of their lake, which they fear could fill with sediment despite the company’s stated policies of controlling erosion.
The five Zeffer siblings — Holleran’s maiden name — want to pass the land on to their children the way it is, “without a big stupid pipeline,” Holleran said.
In court Friday, Constitution argued that it must immediately access their property and six others to meet their FERC-mandated deadline to have the pipeline in service by Dec. 2, 2016.
Arguing before Judge Malachy Mannion, Constitution’s lead attorney Elizabeth Witmer of Saul Ewing LLP called Williams project manager Matthew Swift to the witness stand.
Swift explained that overall crew of 1,300 will split into five construction “spreads.” Each spread has 12 crews that work in assembly line fashion.
The Susquehanna County spread will start at pipeline mile zero and work northwest, he said. If they hit a property they can’t legally access, all 12 crews grind to a halt. Each crew would levy a “standby charge” of $60,000 per day, Swift said, making the cumulative delay cost $720,000 per day.
Meanwhile, the company must work within specific wildlife-related timeframes. It must cut down most of the trees in its route from early fall to March 31 to avoid migratory birds and can only cross certain trout streams from June 1 to early fall.
That means the company has roughly six weeks left to clear most trees along the entire 126-mile route or be forced to wait another year. On that basis, the company hoped to possess its desired rights of way by today.
Following arguments from Witmer and Harrisburg eminent domain attorney Michael Faherty, who represents four of the property owners, Mannion delayed the decision more than a week.
Mannion will allow both parties to submit more briefs on whether Constitution can take possession of the property immediately, with the last deadline on Feb. 23.
The situation could lead to a showdown in the family’s forest. Watching the proceedings was Milford environment and landowner rights activist Alex Lotorto and two of his colleagues. He stated plans to monitor the company’s work for violations, though only with permission of affected landowners. They could also stage sit-ins and protests of tree-clearing on the Hollerans’ land, an idea the family is on board with.
“Oh, it’s going to happen,” Megan Holleran said.