Richmond, VA — Facing a legal challenge from Appalachian Mountain Advocates, Dominion Energy may have just backed down from one of its most intrusive pipeline survey practices. Dominion attorneys filed a muddled notice with the Supreme Court of Virginia that may promise to finally provide several landowners living in the footprint of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline with notice of the specific dates its surveyors will enter their private property. It is unclear based on Dominion’s filing just how specific its new notice letters may be. Notice with specific dates would reverse course from Dominion’s common practice of providing only a date after which surveyors would enter.
The lawsuit stems from Dominion’s treatment of three landowners in Buckingham County, Virginia. The landowners have all refused to give Dominion permission to survey their land for the pipeline. Dominion sent notice informing them that it would begin surveys on their property despite lack of permission “on or after April 27, 2015.” The company is relying on a state law that allows gas companies to enter private property without a landowner’s permission only when certain conditions are met. Since that time, Dominion has never provided these landowners with any specific date its surveyors would come on their land.
“You can’t plan to be there if you don’t know when they’re coming,” said Mike Huntley, one of the landowners. “It’s my land, and I don’t want them on it in the first place. I should have the right to know what’s happening on my own property.” The surveys are very intrusive. Surveyors would spend several days on each parcel surveying for boundaries, endangered species, plants, animals, streams, wetlands, caves, historical sites, cultural artifacts and cemeteries, among other resources.
Appalachian Mountain Advocates (Appalmad) has helped these landowners and scores of others who have challenged these surveys. The group maintains the pipeline companies must give property owners a specific date, pointing to language in the law requiring the company “set forth the date of the intended entry.” Va. Code Ann. 56-49.01(C)(ii).
Last month, Appalmad asked a Buckingham County court to order Dominion to tell the landowners the days its surveyors would come on their land. Dominion instead sought and obtained a Court Order allowing it to enter the private property at any time after a certain date. Appalmad quickly moved for emergency relief for the landowners, asking the Supreme Court of Virginia to clarify the law and protect private property rights.
Rather than wait for the Supreme Court to rule, it appears Dominion may ultimately elect to provide these particular landowners with certain survey dates. “It’s good to see Dominion backpedal,” said Huntley. “I just hope they quit bullying their way onto other folks’ property too.”
It is unclear at this time whether Dominion intends to reform its practice statewide. Doing so may further delay the entire project. Dominion just last month pushed back the project schedule by nearly a year, citing delay caused by requests for additional study of environmental issues.
If the Virginia Supreme Court rules on this issue, its decision may apply to all pipeline surveys across the state.