Post your property with “no trespassing” signs. Demand identification when the surveyors show up without permission. Take names. Document. Shoot photos or video. But leave the shotgun in the house.
If necessary, swear out a warrant for trespassing.
And, later, when the pipeline company makes an offer to buy an easement across your property, be prepared to ask for a jury trial in federal court to try to ensure your compensation is just and accurately reflective of the damages to the value of the property as a whole.
These recommendations were shared Monday night by Joe Waldo, a lawyer whose Norfolk-based firm focuses solely on representing people facing the prospect of losing some or all of their property to eminent domain.
Waldo did not actually say “knowledge is power,” a quote attributed to Francis Bacon, but he might as well have.
About 300 people turned out in Blacksburg to hear Waldo and two other lawyers from the firm of Waldo & Lyle — Chuck Lollar and Joe Sherman — share their expertise. The meeting was held at a rented catering hall.
“When you leave here tonight, you are going to feel empowered,” Waldo said.
Empowered but not necessarily invulnerable. If the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approves the pipeline project, “it is a done deal,” Waldo said.
He acknowledged, in response to a question, that pipeline opponents might be able to make the case to FERC that the pipeline will not serve a public purpose in Virginia if the bulk of the gas it transports is sold in out-of-state markets or exported.
Many people in the crowd Monday night had been contacted in recent weeks and months by a right-of-way acquisition contractor working for Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC, seeking permission to study and survey their property as a potential pipeline host.
Waldo was invited to speak by Preserve the New River Valley, one of several regional citizens groups opposing the pipeline.
As proposed, the 300-mile-long Mountain Valley Pipeline, a joint venture of EQT Corp. and Next-Era Energy, would travel through West Virginia and five counties in Virginia on its way to connect with the Transco transmission pipeline in Pittsylvania County. The other Virginia counties that would be affected include Giles, Montgomery, Roanoke and Franklin.
The 42-inch-diameter, buried, high-pressure pipeline would transport natural gas that has been extracted through hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” from Marcellus and Utica shale formations in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Virginia law, specifically 56-49.01, allows a natural gas company to survey property without an owner’s permission. That is true as long as the company has taken the mandated steps for alerting the owner before entering the property.
According to the law, such entry “shall not be deemed a trespass.”
Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for Mountain Valley, said that the joint venture is confident that the relevant Virginia law grants the legal authority to access property for surveying without permission.
Cox also said Mountain Valley would much rather have an owner’s OK than pursue “the absolute last resort” of entering the property without consent.
Meanwhile, Dominion Transmission, a partner with Duke Energy and others in the proposed 550-mile-long Atlantic Coast Pipeline, recently alerted property owners along that natural gas pipeline’s possible route who have refused access for surveying that it will sue them in court, if necessary, to gain access by Virginia law.
Cox said Monday that Mountain Valley and its right-of-way acquisition contractor, Oklahoma-based Coates Field Service, have contacted about 1,725 property owners to date along the proposed route to request access for study and surveying to obtain a possible easement. That tally includes about 1,025 property owners in West Virginia.
She said that about 82 percent of landowners contacted have granted permission for survey work.
The Mountain Valley Pipeline would be an interstate natural gas line, which means that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would determine whether the pipeline should be built and, if so, would oversee its construction and operations.
Mountain Valley has begun the “pre-filing” process with FERC and anticipates submitting a formal application to the commission during the fall of 2015.
Mountain Valley has said it hopes to begin construction in late 2016 and have the pipeline in service by the fourth quarter of 2018.
A FERC-published guide for people whose property might be targeted for a pipeline route addresses the issue of a pipeline company or its contractor coming on the property without permission: “State or local trespass laws prevail until a certificate is issued by the commission.”
FERC’s guide explains that pipeline companies must conduct environmental studies before filing an application and, as a result, “will try to obtain access to all of the proposed right-of-way” in advance of that application.
John Johns, executive director of the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association, said the association has not yet addressed how sheriffs might respond to a report of trespassing.
“My initial thought is that one of the sheriffs may need to request an attorney general’s opinion,” Johns said. “That research would take into consideration the thoughts of Mr. Waldo and anyone else who might weigh in.”
Michael Kelly, a spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, said Monday that he is not aware of a request for a related opinion but noted that such requests “are treated as attorney-client privileged communication” before an opinion is issued.
Opponents of the pipeline have voiced a host of concerns about its potential effect on the environment, public safety and property values.
Pipeline backers have said providing expanded access to abundant natural gas could yield a host of economic benefits and support the nation’s quest to be more energy independent.
Meanwhile, representatives from Mountain Valley Pipeline are scheduled to meet Thursday at 6:30 p.m. with Giles County’s board of supervisors at Giles High School in Pearisburg. The meeting is public.
And the company will begin holding “open houses” in mid-December. See mountainvalleypipeline.info for the schedule.