STAUNTON — Landowners opposed to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project could find themselves in court next month.
Earlier this week, Dominion Resources filed lawsuits against 27 Augusta County residents and 20 in Nelson County, requesting the court’s permission to come onto the properties and survey potential routes for the natural gas pipeline.
Each of the landowners had previously refused requests by Dominion to allow surveyors to have access to the properties. By the end of the month, Dominion officials said they expect to file against a total of 56 landowners in Augusta County and 122 in Nelson.
The court would then start serving notices during the first week of January, and those property owners would have three weeks to answer the complaint. A court date would then be set for hearings in each case.
“Some of these landowners may grant us permission before any hearing occurs, which we would welcome,” said Jim Norvelle, Dominion Energy’s Director of Communications.
“These landowners have been steadfast in telling us that they will not grant us permission to survey, regardless of the Virginia law that allows us to enter their property to survey once notifications are made as required by that law.”
Norvelle points out that Dominion sent a final letter to the landowners in November, again asking for permission, before making the decision to move forward in the courts. He argues that Dominion needs to survey these properties in order to avoid running into issues later on such as a family cemetery.
“We were not required to send this letter, but we thought it was the right thing to do,” Norvelle said. “We notified them that if they did not grant us permission, we would file legal actions and ask the court to affirm the law. We are now at the stage with these landowners.”
The part of state law Norvelle refers to is Section 56-49.01 of the Virginia Code, which states that any natural gas company can make “such examinations, tests, hand auger borings, appraisals and surveys for its proposed line or location of its works as are necessary to satisfy any regulatory requirements and for the selection of the most advantageous location or route.”
The law further states that gas companies can conduct these surveys without permission if the company has asked for the owner’s permission to enter and has not received it and then informed the owner of their intent to come onto the property.
The lawsuit filing states that Dominion sent out a letter requesting permission to inspect the property by certified mail. Those letters went out to 3,331 property owners across West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina. The company also sent out letters letting the property owners know of their plans to enter the property and survey land.
If the court grants Dominion’s request, that doesn’t give the company authority for any type of construction. It would just allow access for surveying.
However, some of the property owners affected by the filings don’t plan to step aside just because the issue is going to court.
“My family personally and some of the other landowners will be contesting the court order,” said Augusta County resident Travis Geary, who also serves as co-chairman of the Augusta County Alliance, one of the groups which organized to oppose the project.
“I think this was designed to scare people into submission,” Geary said of the legal filings. “Some landowners are understandably fearful of what the consequences would be if they didn’t allow Dominion on the property.”
Still, Geary said that he and his group would respect the decision of the judge, if it comes to that.
“At the end of the day, if the judge orders [to allow access], we will abide,” Geary said. He added, however, that wouldn’t mean his group would drop its opposition of the project itself.
“This is a very long process, with a number of ways to present our opposition,” Geary added.
The pipeline is a 550-mile project, with an estimated 43 miles passing through Augusta County.
Dominion plans to hold public meetings in the next few months to go over the proposed route. A final “preferred” route is expected to be ready to present to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission by next summer.