By Alicia Petska, Lynchburg News Advance
One of the biggest backers of the state’s 2012 constitutional amendment narrowing eminent domain may have to cede a piece of his family land to the Mountain Valley Pipeline project out in southwest Virginia.
Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, said in committee Monday he had to abstain from a pipeline-related vote because his family farmland in Montgomery County may be on the route of the 300-mile interstate pipeline proposed by EQT Corp. and NextEra Energy.
The bill heard Monday sought to prevent interstate pipeline companies from doing surveying and other preliminary work on private property without the owner’s consent.
Current Virginia law allows the companies to proceed over an owner’s objections provided certain steps and notice requirements are followed.
Landowners along the nearby Atlantic Coast Pipeline route in Nelson County, Augusta County and elsewhere have objected to that as an invasion that is inconsistent with all the work Virginia has done to strengthen private property rights — including passing the 2012 constitutional amendment championed by Obenshain.
In an interview, Obenshain said his family was notified its land in Montgomery County might be surveyed as part of the Mountain Valley Pipeline project.
The family hasn’t decided whether it would consent to a survey, he said, but ultimately that will make little difference as current law doesn’t require consent.
“I don’t know that I’ve got a whole heck of a lot of choice,” Obenshain said. “… They’re going to be able to do it whether I like it or consent to it or not.”
Obenshain, echoing comments he made Monday, added he was displeased with that and doesn’t believe pipeline companies should have that power.
But he said more questions need to be answered about how much authority the state has on the matter. Monday’s bill, which died in committee, would have repealed a 2004 state law on the issue, but questions were raised about how effective that move would be.
Critics argued public utilities have a long-recognized legal right to survey on private land and contended repealing the 2004 law would only undo existing protections for landowners, such as requirements to provide advance notice or pay for damage done.
“The status quo at the time [the 2004 law was proposed] was that utilities were coming onto property without notice and doing damage without compensating property owners for it,” said Obenshain, who voted for the law.
“I sure want them to get consent, but I don’t want to go back to that old status quo.”
Obenshain’s family has owned farmland in Montgomery County for years and currently rents it out. When asked if he’d embrace the pipeline coming through the property, he said, “I would certainly be much happier if a different route was chosen. I don’t know many property owners who feel otherwise.”