Mountain Valley Pipeline is fighting back against landowners in Franklin County who have denied surveyors access to their property. Last week, the company filed a lawsuit against a Cahas Mountain landowner, Occanneechi Inc.

Occanneechi is a small business in Boones Mill owned by the family of Serina Garst.

Occanneechi owns most of the mountain, a landmark of Franklin County. Garst’s family has an apple farm at its base. Occanneechi is a small operation — Garst said it has only one employee, and that her brothers do most of the work on the farm.

Garst now lives in California, but as a lawyer, she’s become the family’s spokesperson. Her mother and brothers still live next to the property.

Mountain Valley is asking for a temporary and permanent injunction preventing Occanneechi from interfering with its surveying work.

Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for Mountain Valley, said she believes about five lawsuits have been filed in Franklin County to allow the company to continue with its surveying.

“Based on Virginia law, as a natural gas company we have the right to conduct property surveys,” Cox said. “Following the statutes and the guidelines of the Virginia law, which we have done, we are acting in accordance with that law so that we can continue our survey access for the Mountain Valley Pipeline.”

Cox said Mountain Valley is trying to keep the project on track and needs to stay on schedule with its surveying work to do so. The company hopes to submit its application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in October.

“We do not like to use litigation unless it’s absolutely necessary, and would hope that we can continue our surveying activities,” Cox said.

The company’s lawsuit states: “MVP has suffered and will continue to suffer irreparable harm from defendant’s unlawful actions for which MVP has no adequate remedy at law. The harm includes delay in completing the surveys, additional costs on completing the surveys, delay in completing the application to FERC for a certificate to construct the Pipeline, and delay in receiving approval for construction of the Pipeline and placing the Pipeline in operation.”

Garst said the Occanneechi land has been in her family for generations. It’s named for an Indian tribe in the area, and you can still find arrowheads on the farm, she said.

Garst’s father, who died two years ago, loved the pristine mountain. Garst said she’s glad he’s not around to see what might become of it.

“It’s good that he’s not here to see it,” she said. “This would be awful for him.”

There’s been a lot of pressure to develop it over the years, Garst said, but so far, the family has been able to preserve it. They have a conservation easement over part of the land, Garst said. Mountain Valley Pipeline sent letters to Occanneechi first asking for permission to survey the land and then notifying the company of its intent to enter the property.

Garst said she wrote letters in response saying that Mountain Valley Pipeline did not have permission to come onto the family’s land, but that they would be happy to sit down and talk with them. She also tried to call them.

Garst thought if they did the surveying and saw how rugged the terrain was and the blasting that would be required at the top of the mountain where it’s very rocky, they’d be deterred from the route. But she also wanted to talk with surveyors to understand what exactly they’d be doing on the land and what safeguards would be put in place. It’s very dry on the mountain right now, so the family had concerns about forest fires. Garst had also hoped they’d share the results of their surveying work with her.

But Garst never heard back from anyone affiliated with Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Then one day, about a month ago, surveyors showed up on the property. Garst’s brother asked them to leave, and they did.

The family didn’t hear from MVP again until they were served with a lawsuit on Sept. 11, Garst said.

However, Garst said, her brothers believe surveyors have been on their land. It’s a large property, and it’s not fenced, so there are many ways to enter it, she said.

Garst said she was surprised by the lawsuit and that, as a lawyer, she found it unusual that Mountain Valley didn’t attempt to work the issue out with Occanneechi in advance.

“There’s a concept in litigation that you don’t resort to using the court’s resources until you feel that there is no other alternative,” she said.

Mountain Valley Pipeline is ignoring that concept, and instead taking the “strong-arm bully tactic,” Garst said.

Since they appear to be the subject of one of the first lawsuits, Garst said she wonders if Occanneechi is being used as a test case. With 2,700 acres, Garst said, they’re probably one of the largest landowners Mountain Valley Pipeline will have to deal with.

Garst said she felt disgusted when she found out about the lawsuit.

“It’s a disgusting thing that our system allows someone to take someone else’s property to put in this pipeline for what I believe is truly a private use,” she said.

If the pipeline were going to provide heat for a community in need, Garst said, she’d feel differently. But Garst believes Mountain Valley Pipeline plans to “load up the gas and ship it overseas.”

Garst said the fact that Mountain Valley can use eminent domain to build its pipeline feels like a poor interpretation of the Constitution, which sought to provide a way to use private property for the common good when it was necessary.

“This is neither for the common good, nor is it necessary,” she said.

Garst said her family is talking to attorneys and figuring out what to do next.

Casey Fabris covers Franklin County, Rocky Mount and Ferrum College.

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