Pipeline Bills Force Lawmakers to Side Against Cherished Property Rights

Three bills related to the controversy surrounding allowing Dominion Transmission access to land without owners’ consent to survey for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in Virginia died in the Senate yesterday. Pipeline opponents were disappointed with the result but not discouraged. On their Facebook pages, two local groups voiced their reactions:

Friends of Nelson: “…folks, please know, while yesterday’s result was disappointing, it was not surprising, nor in any way a defeat. Power loosens its grip slowly, only with a lot of arm twisting. I thank everyone deeply for their time and efforts yesterday. We twisted; the grip IS loosening.”

Friends of Augusta: “So disappointed… It was a 12 hour day for some of us so resting up now because the fight continues! We saw first hand today how important numbers are so please keep calling and writing. It matters! We just have to keep resisting this damn pipeline and they will have no option but to listen to us! Thanks for your continued support Friends!”

Pipeline bills fail in committee

Pipeline bills fail in committee
Sen. Jeff McWaters, R-Virginia Beach, talks to pipeline opponents after Monday’s committee decision.

By Alicia Petska, Lynchburg News and Advance

RICHMOND — The trio of pipeline bills introduced by Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, died in committee Monday.

The bills — which sought to open up project records and restrict or repeal a controversial 2004 surveying law — attracted little support in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, though individual lawmakers expressed sympathy for the property owners.

“I don’t want you to be discouraged,” Sen. Jeff McWaters, R-Virginia Beach, told some two dozen landowners who came to Richmond for Monday’s hearing. “… Keep fighting your fight.”

Hanger’s proposals were driven by public opposition to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a natural gas line expected to cut across more than a dozen Virginia localities, including Augusta and Nelson counties.

Several local landowners have objected to the pipeline coming through their property and oppose laws that allow the Dominion-led energy consortium to do surveying and other work without property owners’ consent.

Hanger’s bills each met slightly different fates Monday, but none will advance. The concept behind Senate Bill 1166, an open records bill, was referred to the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council for study.

Senate Bill 1169, which would have restricted a natural gas utility’s right of access to private property, was pulled by Hanger, citing a lack of support for the measure.

The final and strongest measure, Senate Bill 1338, failed to get a motion from the committee and died without a vote.

SB1338 would have repealed a 2004 state law allowing interstate natural gas companies to enter private property without consent as long as certain steps and notifications are observed.

Hanger argued the law ran counter to the state’s efforts in recent years to shore up private property rights and restrict the use of eminent domain.

Hundreds of miles of pipelines were built in Virginia before 2004, he noted, but companies had to work with property owners “and try to strike up a deal and be friendly and accommodating.”

Landowners told the committee this was a fundamental property rights issue. Some said letters received indicate more than 20 crew members could be sent onto their property for an indeterminate amount of time.

“Level the playing field,” Carlos Arostegui, owner of Whispering Creek Farm in Buckingham County, urged. “Make them talk to us and make them persuade us, not ram it down our throats.”

The Virginia Oil and Gas Association, which opposed the bill, said repealing the 2004 law wouldn’t eliminate a company’s ability to enter private property and would only hurt property owners by dismantling protections built into the current law.

The right of access to private property stems from other laws on the books, according to the industry association, but the 2004 measure required companies to give property owners advance notice and pay damages when needed.

Sen. Mark Obenshain, a chief sponsor of the 2012 constitutional amendment narrowing eminent domain powers, agreed with that point and said he felt conflicted on the issue.

“I still don’t think it’s right for these folks to be able to come on people’s property,” he said. “… However, I’m very concerned about whether this would be diminishing some of the marginal benefits we’ve been able to provide to property owners.”

Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, added he couldn’t vote on the measure at any rate because he owns land on a pipeline route in southwest Virginia and has been sent a notice to survey.

The Senate committee also noted there are pending lawsuits surrounding the surveying disputes and said the legislature should refrain from taking action that could muddy the water for the courts.

SB1338 died due to lack of a committee motion.

Joanna Salidis, president of the grassroots group Friends of Nelson, said afterward she was disappointed and wasn’t persuaded by the industry group’s argument that the 2004 law benefited property owners.

“The senators should know that the private property owners of Virginia see through that,” she said.

Hanger said the pipeline issues will be part of a continuing debate, and he was pleased there will be a study of the open records proposal.

The landowners’ objections to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline aren’t going to disappear, he added, and hopefully that will be considered in future discussions.

“I would hope at some point Dominion would yield to an examination of the route, and really that is my motivation,” Hanger said. “I think the pipeline could be good, but they need to re-examine the route.”

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