Long legacy: Family history fuels fight against pipeline in Nelson County

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Nelson County native Rev. James Rose stands in a cemetery on land owned by his great-grandfather. He and other members of his extended family now own that divided parcel, and several of their properties lie in the path of Dominion’s planned Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Photo: Rammelkamp Photo Nelson County native Rev. James Rose stands in a cemetery on land owned by his great-grandfather. He and other members of his extended family now own that divided parcel, and several of their properties lie in the path of Dominion’s planned Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Photo: Rammelkamp Photo

Dominion Resources’ proposed $4.5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline route spans 550 miles from West Virginia to North Carolina, and just 35 of those miles are in Nelson County. But it’s there that the natural gas transmission project, supported by Governor Terry McAuliffe and touted by industry as a job-boosting boon, is meeting with some of the fiercest pushback: Only 25 percent of county landowners the company has contacted asking for permission to conduct land surveys have said yes, compared to a project-wide total of 70 percent.

In one pocket of southeast Nelson, a common history binds a particularly staunch group of pipeline opponents—and they say that history is a big part of why they want to see the project die.

A county of cousins

The Rev. James Rose and his neighbor Pearl Miles were born six years apart—in 1938 and 1944, respectively—and grew up within walking distance of each other in a time and place where walking distance was the whole world. The rolling bottomland along Route 56 between Shipman and Wingina, where the Blue Ridge tumbles down to the James, encompassed everything: homeplace, two-room segregated schoolhouse, and a circuit of clapboard black Baptist churches that held services on a rotating basis.

They’re also probably related, if distantly. Miles is a Venable, twice removed. That surname, along with Rose, Woodson, Bowling, and many more, is shared by uncounted numbers of descendants of the slaves of white plantation owners who settled what was then part of Albemarle County in the early 1800s.

Just how their great-grandparents came to own bits and pieces of the countryside their own parents likely worked as slaves isn’t clear to Rose.

“A lot of times, the older folks, nobody asked them questions years ago,” he said.

But family documents tell the story of what happened next. Rose’s great-grandfather divided his 28.5 acres near the junction of routes 56 and 626 among his children. Rose grew up with two other families of cousins on one parcel in a two-story house without electricity or running water. Everybody had chores: feeding the hogs and chickens, hauling water for drinking and wash day.

“We was so many of us, there was some at the head of the bed, some at the bottom of the bed, some laying on the floor,” he said, laughing.

In 1951, his family of 13 moved to New York. Rose worked for more than two decades for the NYPD’s traffic division, married, and raised two daughters there. But he never dropped the ties to home. His grandmother’s parcel passed to his father and then to him, and about 20 years ago, he took over paying the taxes on most of his great-grandfather’s original acreage.

“I didn’t want the land to get out of our hands,” he said. “Our foreparents, they held onto it too hard. And they held onto it all those years.”

Rose is home for good now. He lives in a neat prefab home on the same land he worked as a child, within sight of a handful of other houses scattered across his great-grandfather’s 28.5 acres. He erected a flagpole and a sign near the driveway off Route 626: The Rose Estate. He put up a fence around the family graveyard where his grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and unknown other relatives are buried, some with only field stones for markers. He keeps the grass trimmed.

And when he got a letter in August from Dominion asking for permission to survey some of his land, he knew who to call.

Do not enter

Pearl Miles never left Nelson. One of five siblings raised on land that once belonged to her great-grandparents on Route 626, she married a Shipman boy—the way she says it, he could have been from another state—in 1962, and moved “up on the hill” a few miles north and west of her childhood home. They raised two girls before her husband, an electric company lineman, died in an on-the-job accident in 1997. One daughter lives half an hour south in Amherst County, and Miles’ older sister still lives in the house where they grew up.

“We hang out together, look out for each other,” she said.

She got her letter from Dominion in March, a request to survey her 17.5 acres on Route 56. At Sunday services at Saint Hebron Baptist Church—about halfway between her house and Rose’s—neighbors who had also received letters compared notes. She and many others along the rural highway chose to do what the majority of Nelson County residents who have been contacted by Dominion have done: They wrote the company back refusing permission to enter their land.

That land is all she has, Miles said, and she couldn’t see any room for a 100′ gas line right-of-way. Her husband’s ashes are scattered to the west of her house. To the east, her drive connects to the highway. She felt no real relief when she learned the pipeline route had likely shifted off her property and onto her neighbor’s across the road.

“It’s still too close,” she said, her mouth a tight line. “It has to go. Out of the county. It just needs to go.”

Around the time Miles learned she was out of Dominion’s sights, Rose got word he was in them. The company’s most current maps show the pipeline route slicing through several small parcels that make up his great-grandfather’s original acreage. They’re all owned by family members, some of whom live far away, as he did for years. He still pays the taxes on some of the land, and he, too, joined the ranks of those who have sent certified letters to Dominion telling the company to stay away.

“I’m concerned it might explode and damage property,” he said of the pipeline. “I’m concerned about the environment.” If there was a leak, an accident, “it could affect the whole county. We’d all have to suffer.”

And the way the line is drawn through properties along 56, including his family’s, troubles him. It appears to cut immediately behind Saint Hebron church, close to the graves—many likely unmarked—of many of the community’s first black landholders. It goes through the relatively small properties of his cousins, some of them only a few acres, which could significantly limit their ability to build on those skinny lots in the future. He knows they’re not alone in their concerns about their land being used for a project they don’t like, but it seems to him like his corner of the county is taking a disproportionately heavy hit. That, he said, is why he and so many others in the immediate area are agreeing to say no to surveyors.

“It’s taking my family land, everybody in one family,” he said. “We’re always targeted, the African-Americans and the low-income people. If anybody can’t see that, then they’d have to blind. I think it’s because they feel we’re not going to fight back.”

‘Help us understand’

“I would say that’s definitely not the case,” said Dominion spokesman Frank Mack. He said the company didn’t draw the route based on lot size or who owns what property. “There are large and small properties along the whole 550-mile route. I don’t think anybody’s being picked on or selected.”

Dominion has tried to chart a route that has the least impact on environmental, cultural, and historic resources, said Mack, which means avoiding environmental easements and “known” historic and culturally significant areas—that is, properties that are eligible or potentially eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

But outside of state records on significant properties, property owners are the best experts when it comes to what needs protecting. 

“The best thing to do is to help us understand,” he said. “We’re trying to work with landowners the best we can, and if they refuse [to let us survey], that’s going to limit us.”

Nowhere in Virginia are they as limited, then, as they are in Nelson, thanks to the high rate of survey refusal. In fact, the company has barely done any surveying in the county, despite the fact that it hopes to start the required Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval process for the pipeline soon, and have the project online by the end of 2018. Federal law allows the company to seek a court order to survey property without owner permission, and ultimately take land via eminent domain—a move Mack said Dominion may eventually make.

He also emphasized that the route in Nelson County has shifted after property owners have given the company permission to survey. 

“There is some room to move it around,” he said.

But for Miles, Rose, and others in their community who intend to bar the door against Dominion, a shift from one backyard to another isn’t enough. Their rich local history might not have state or federal recognition, but as the last generation to grow up on the land like their parents and grandparents, they feel a responsibility to protect it.

“If we don’t keep the county and our family history together, the younger generation will just let it go right on away,” said Miles. “They won’t keep it up.”

For his part, Rose intends to be buried on his land, just as his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were. He hopes there won’t also be a gas pipeline buried on the property.

“I’m going to fight this,” he said. “I might lose, but I’m going to try to fight it.”