Open Records Push for Projects Like Atlantic Coast Pipeline Dies in House

By Alicia Petska, Lynchburg News Advance

RICHMOND – The push to open up records on projects like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline died in the House of Delegates on Thursday.

House Bill 1696 was killed in committee on a near-unanimous voice vote. The bill, introduced by Del. Dickie Bell, would have made public utilities subject to sunshine laws on projects where the company is allowed to exercise eminent domain.

“Eminent domain is a powerful tool, I’m sure everybody in the room knows that,” Bell, R-Staunton, said during a hearing before the House Commerce and Labor Committee.

“We have an opportunity to make government and public utilities a little more accountable to the people, and I think that’s a good thing.”

The bill, which still has a counterpart alive in the Senate, was filed in response to grievances raised by landowners battling a proposal to bring a 550-mile natural gas pipeline proposed to run from West Virginia through Virginia to North Carolina, passing through Nelson County.

“You really aren’t able to get any information, even at this point,” said Martha Purvis Smith, whose parents are among those expecting to be sued over the current standoff on surveying access.

Smith said her father, a former school board member who lives in Shipman, understands the importance of public projects and relinquished part of his land years ago for a road widening.

But he’s been unable to get any information about the proposed pipeline route beyond a “very generic map,” she said.

“We’re not anti-pipeline people. We’re not anti-business,” she said. “But we certainly are very much pro-private property owners having rights.”

Dominion — the lead company in the pipeline partnership — said in a written statement it’s run a transparent process that to date has included two rounds of open houses where property owners could review maps and talk to subject matter experts.

In Nelson County alone, about 350 people attended the open houses.

Dominion declined to comment on Bell’s open records bill. Other companies — including Verizon, Old Dominion Electric Cooperative and Washington Gas — spoke against it Thursday.

“I think this legislation has many unintended consequences that would occur if it were enacted,” said Brentley Archer, business policy director for Columbia Gas.

“I also think it would lead to a significant number of new frivolous lawsuits. I just think it’s not in the best interest of the commonwealth.”

The bill was supported by property owners, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government and Virginia Press Association.

“The people are entitled to know all the facts that support the use of the power of eminent domain,” said Henry Howell, an eminent domain attorney representing property owners in Nelson and other counties.

“These are important issues, and I think its test of whether we’re just talking the talk about private property ownership being a fundamental right or are we’re walking the walk.”

Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, made a motion to approve Bell’s bill and send it to the full House. But it quickly was replaced with a substitute motion to set the bill aside indefinitely.

The motion to set aside was passed overwhelmingly on a voice vote. Cline and Del. Robert Bell, R-Charlottesville, appeared to be the only members voting no.

There still is a Senate version of the bill pending. SB1166, introduced by Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, makes the same proposal as Bell’s.

Hanger also has bills to repeal or limit a 2004 law allowing Dominion to go onto people’s property without permission — provided certain steps and notice have been observed — to complete land surveying and other tasks.

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