More lawsuits: New pipeline route brings new legal wrangling

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The new route of the Atlantic Coast pipeline goes through the heart of the South Rockfish Rural District near its Natural History Center, say critics. Photo by Peter Agelasto The new route of the Atlantic Coast pipeline goes through the heart of the South Rockfish Rural District near its Natural History Center, say critics. Photo by Peter Agelasto

As local landowners continue to deny Dominion access to their private land, the power company proposing the controversial $5 billion natural gas pipeline is attempting to force its way onto additional properties, at least one with historically significant assets, with a slew of fresh lawsuits. Most of the newly filed suits stem from of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s recently adopted alternate routes, which will spare some landowners from having the 550-mile line cross their property, but put others squarely in its path. Of the 27 new suits, 22 are against residents of Nelson County, where opposition to the project is nearly unanimous.

Joanna Salidas, president of Friends of Nelson, says most people don’t understand the problem landowners in the pipeline path face in this situation. When it comes to surrendering their land, they really have no choice, she says, since the utility company can employ eminent domain, which allows authorized public corporations to take private property for public use.

Dominion’s lawsuits are a “clear indication that they plan to take people’s property,” Salidas says, and that “the only choice is to negotiate a price or have it determined for you in court. What kind of choice is that?”

Dominion spokesperson Frank Mack describes the lawsuits as a last resort.

“It is not our preferred choice, but we now are at [that] stage with these landowners,” Mack says in an e-mail. “The company could send surveyors onto their land today.”

When an attorney notified landowner and Nelson County resident Richard Averitt that he had a lawsuit filed against him, he wasn’t surprised.

“I knew it was coming because we’ve watched Dominion do this to others,” says Averitt, who believes Dominion is illegally acting under the guise of a public entity. ”I’m going to fight them all the way to the Supreme Court if that’s what it takes.”

Two of Averitt’s properties will be affected by the pipeline’s new proposed course—his personal property falls on the east side of Route 151 where the pipeline will cross and continue through an area he bought and intends to develop with his father on the west side of the route.

Peter Agelasto, another Nelson County landowner who is being sued, fears the pipeline will destroy the deep history and culture that he and other members of the Rockfish Valley Foundation have worked so hard to preserve.

Agelasto, the chair of the board of trustees for the foundation, says his group had just received grants from Nelson County and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to complete the South Rockfish Rural District—with those grants, this project that he’s been working on since 2009 will be completed in June 2016.

The pipeline will require between 125 and 400 feet of clear-cutting on this property, which means bulldozing slave-built water traces and destroying historic structures, including the 76-year-old Spruce Creek bridge that survived Hurricane Camille’s flooding in 1969, and eradicating birding trails that are recognized by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries as one of the top 10 birding trails in the Piedmont area, according to Agelasto.

“They have done a first class job of finding the most sensitive and important spot for historic culture in the Rockfish Valley,” Agelasto says. “If they were doing it on purpose, they could not have done any better.”

Mack says the best way to know about, and possibly route around, sensitive historical assets is to survey those areas, and at press time, his team had not been allowed to survey the Rockfish Valley Foundation areas. However, based on the limited information available to him, he does not believe the pipeline will affect the Spruce Creek Bridge on the property, though Agelasto says the new proposed route goes right through it.

Agelasto suggests the Atlantic Coast pipeline should find other utility lines to join, instead of forcing its way into a community and destroying its past because history, he says, can not be mitigated.

“They think you can write somebody a check and make them whole, but you can not do that with history,” he says.

But Mack claims that Dominion is doing its best to be sensitive to the properties and people the project affects. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission requires companies to consider using existing rights of way when routing pipelines, he explains.

“We have done so and will continue to use rights of way or parallel them where we can,” Mack says. However, that’s not always an option for several reasons like lack of space, soil conditions and topography. Also, pipelines can’t be buried under electric transmission lines, on top of other pipelines or in the middle of highways, he says.

Dominion’s current plan, Mack says, is to file its preferred route later this summer, and the company will select the path with the least environmental impact.

“This can only be accomplished by surveying property,” Mack says.