A circuit court judge on Friday denied Mountain Valley Pipeline’s request for an injunction against a Bent Mountain property owner who the pipeline company alleged had interfered with attempts to survey his land for a possible pipeline route.
Instead, Judge David Carson ordered the property owner, Fred Vest, 70, and his attorney, Scott Austin, to meet with Mountain Valley’s attorney and a project manager to agree to a date when Vest would allow surveying to occur.
Friday’s hearing focused solely on Mountain Valley’s request for an injunction barring Vest from interfering with efforts to survey his property off Mill Creek Road in Roanoke County.
The lawsuit that the pipeline company filed April 27 against Vest also sought a declaratory judgment, attesting to Mountain Valley’s rights under state law to survey property without permission. In addition, Mountain Valley sought $25,000 in damages the company attributed to Vest’s actions.
Mountain Valley could still choose to pursue those actions against Vest, a Vietnam veteran. Natalie Cox, a company spokeswoman, declined to discuss that point.
“Mountain Valley Pipeline cannot provide specific details at this time as we are continuing to evaluate all legal options,” Cox said.
Mountain Valley Pipeline wants to build and bury a 42-inch diameter pipeline to transport natural gas at high pressure from Wetzel County, West Virginia, to connect with another pipeline in Pittsylvania County.
Survey crews working for Mountain Valley returned to the field in Virginia in recent weeks to resume attempts to identify a proposed route for the pipeline, which, as currently mapped, would cross Bent Mountain before entering Franklin County.
Many landowners who could be impacted by a pipeline route have refused to give permission for surveying. Virginia law allows natural gas companies to access property without an owner’s consent if the companies provide required notification.
On Bent Mountain, in Franklin County and elsewhere along the route, surveyors are encountering resistance from landowners who insist the pipeline company’s notices to them do not fully comply with the relevant state law, 56-49.01.
Those notices became a key focus during Friday’s hearing, even though Carson made it clear his courtroom was not the proper forum to contest the statute — which has been found constitutional by other court rulings — or to debate the merits of the pipeline project.
When the hearing began, Carson gave the opposing lawyers 30 minutes total to make their case, noting that his court faced a busy docket of criminal cases. The courtroom gallery included about 30 people who had come to support Vest.
Austin responded to Carson’s time limit by presenting a rapid-fire case. Vest took the stand. His testimony and a flurry of notice letters suggested that there had been miscommunications and misunderstandings and that it was Vest’s ultimate intent to comply with state law and allow surveying to proceed.
Wade Massie, an attorney representing Mountain Valley, called as a witness Mike Robinson, an employee of Coates Field Service, a contractor working for the pipeline company to coordinate surveying and rights-of-way acquisitions.
Robinson’s memory of conversations with Vest differed on some points with Vest’s testimony. But Robinson, also a Vietnam veteran, said he had appreciated Vest’s demeanor during phone conversations.
“I’ve had nothing but pleasant conversations with Fred,” Robinson said.
The conflict that led to the lawsuit occurred April 9, when Vest was out of town. In his absence, a relative asked surveyors to leave Vest’s property and called county police.
When the police arrived, the surveyors left, Massie said. Yet, he said, Vest later contacted a magistrate and obtained misdemeanor trespass charges against four surveyors even though Mountain Valley had complied with the surveying law.
Those cases are set for a hearing on June 16.
Massie said Mountain Valley had complied with the law’s notification requirements, a point disputed by Austin.
Austin said the company had failed, in two instances, to follow up letters requesting permission to survey with letters identifying intended dates for entering the property.
After a recess, Carson described the case as “a very close call.” He noted that Mountain Valley was appropriately relying on a state law to gain access for surveying and to a “great extent” was following the law’s guidance for notification.
On the other hand, Carson said, is “a gentleman protecting his property rights.”
He said the evidence suggested there had been communication issues and potential misunderstandings, and not enough evidence to justify, “at this time,” granting the injunction sought by Mountain Valley.
“Mountain Valley Pipeline is pleased that the court recognizes our right to enter property to conduct survey activities related to the MVP project,” Cox said. “We will continue to work with Mr. Vest regarding these surveying activities, as we have been doing with property owners along the proposed MVP route.”
Austin shared his reaction to Carson’s ruling.
“We’re very pleased with the outcome of the hearing,” he said. “It was a difficult case and we’re pleased that on these facts the judge ruled in our favor.”
Roberta Bondurant, an active member of Preserve Bent Mountain, a pipeline opposition group, attended Friday’s hearing.
She said she felt Carson’s ruling confirmed that pipeline opponents contesting the sufficiency of survey notification letters were on “solid ground.” She also expressed admiration for Vest’s willingness to hold Mountain Valley accountable “to the letter of the law.”
Mountain Valley needs a green light from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to begin construction on the proposed 301-mile, $3.5 billion pipeline. The company has applied for the permit, and FERC staff and a consultant are working on a draft environmental impact statement.