Glenn Frith believed he’d done everything necessary to keep pipeline survey crews off his property in Franklin County. So when he spotted surveyors on his land, he felt blindsided and angry.
“I told the first guy, ‘What part of “no trespassing” don’t you understand?’ ” Frith recalled.
The July 30 confrontation Frith said he had with members of a surveying contractor working for Mountain Valley Pipeline led to two surveyors being charged with misdemeanor trespass — even though a Virginia law would seem to shield them from such charges.
Frith said confusion about that law could lead to tragic consequences, especially in Franklin County.
“People here are protective of their land,” he said.
Survey crews are in the field in both Virginia and West Virginia, working to identify a route for the proposed buried 42-inch-diameter natural gas transmission pipeline. The pipeline would travel through several regional counties if the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approves the project.
There seems to be confusion, too, about the circumstances under which survey crews will obey when a property owner asks them to leave.
Mountain Valley has said publicly that it would tell survey crews to leave a property if the owner objected to their presence, even though Virginia law seemingly does not require such compliance. Richard Caywood, Roanoke County’s assistant county administrator, and Franklin County Sheriff Bill Overton both said that separate conference calls with Mountain Valley left them with the same impression.
But in an Aug. 6 email to Caywood, pipeline project manager Shawn Posey wrote that the company “had stated that we would leave the property respectfully if the landowner became physical or belligerent.”
That distinction was news to both Caywood and Overton.
Overton said Thursday that the Franklin County trespassing charges came after the survey crew, according to Frith, did not immediately leave Frith’s property when he asked them to.
Yet state statute 56-49.01 allows natural gas companies to enter private property without an owner’s permission as long as the company has followed notification procedures outlined in the law, including certified letters declaring the company’s intent to enter the property and identifying the dates of entry.
The law states that “any entry authorized by this section shall not be deemed a trespass.”
Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for Mountain Valley, said the company believes the surveyors did not break the law.
“We understand there are allegations of trespass in Franklin County; however, we also believe that we have followed Virginia law and that we have met the required notifications to landowners,” Cox said.
Frith said that he did not know about this provision of the law when he confronted surveyors July 30.
He said he had mailed a certified letter denying permission for surveying of his property by crews working for Mountain Valley. He’d posted his bucolic land off Wildwood Road near Cahas Mountain. Some of the “no trespassing” signs explicitly barred surveyors working for Mountain Valley.
Frith, who served in the U.S. Marines and says he is not inclined to duck conflict, concluded that the surveyors he saw were trespassing. He said his conversation with one surveyor turned heated.
“We were nose to nose, about ready for a big confrontation. They knew I was hot as a firecracker,” Frith said.
He said survey crew members seemed intent on completing their task while he was preoccupied in that tense exchange.
“I’m 67. I don’t need this. My blood pressure is up,” Frith said.
For months now, contract survey crews working for Mountain Valley have been out in the field, crossing private and public properties. Their presence has stirred strong feelings among some opponents of the project. Cox said about 125 surveyors are working in West Virginia and Virginia.
Many landowners along the roughly 300-mile pipeline route have granted permission for surveying.
Many have not.
The latter group includes a determined Mavis Boone, 90, whose family farm off Foggy Ridge Road in Franklin County includes fertile bottomland along the Blackwater River and at least two springs she fears could be irreparably damaged by a pipeline buried in a trench with a depth of 7 feet to 10 feet.
Two farmers lease portions of the bottomland. One raises soybeans; the other raises corn.
On Monday, Boone and her son, Blair, 59, who lives and works near Buffalo, New York, waited for the surveyors to come. Mavis Boone planned to personally bar them from the land that’s been in the family since 1946.
“This farm is supposed to be my children’s inheritance,” she said.
The two Boones did not know for sure what time the surveyors would arrive nor where they would attempt to enter the family’s property. That uncertainty complicated the logistics of their vigilance.
They and other landowners barring access for surveying have expressed frustration that they must keep watch to personally bar survey crews before the surveyors complete their tasks.
“I should not have to baby-sit my property,” Frith said. “I don’t have time to waste.”
Mountain Valley has said it will seek a court order declaring the right of surveyors to access the land after being turned away by a property owner. That hasn’t happened yet, according to Cox.
“We have not yet filed any lawsuits in Virginia and we have not made a final determination regarding our legal approach to obtain property access,” she said.
Caywood said residents have said surveyors sometimes do not show up on the days they’ve identified in certified letters to property owners, which he said makes him wonder whether Mountain Valley is truly complying with state law.
Typically, surveyors identifying the center line of a possible pipeline route arrive first. They can be followed by crews examining the route for potential environmental issues, including the presence of rare and endangered species and streams and wetlands. A separate crew conducts a cultural resource survey, looking for such things as American Indian artifacts and burial mounds, old cemeteries and historic structures that a pipeline route should avoid. Another crew analyzes a route’s geology, looking for such things as sinkholes and caves.
In Roanoke County, a group of pipeline opponents living in the vicinity of Bent Mountain and Poor Mountain recently organized a self-described “posse” whose members have tried to keep an eye on survey crews.
Genesis Chapman, 45, is a Richmond-based artist who grew up on Bent Mountain and still has strong ties and a cabin there. He has been a posse member. Most interactions with surveyors have been cordial, he said.
Yet their presence alone has been disconcerting, he said.
“There’s a feeling the community is being invaded, that we’re under siege,” Chapman said.
Architect Eldon Karr, 73, and his wife, Sue, 70, have lived for about 40 years on Bent Mountain, where they own roughly 40 acres.
The Karrs oppose the pipeline. Two separate pipeline routes under consideration could pass close by. Like many others, the Carrs worry about the pipeline’s potential environmental impacts, especially on high-quality creeks and groundwater. The couple also opposed wind turbines proposed in recent years on Poor Mountain.
Eldon Karr said the nation needs to shift away from what he described as industrialized energy sources to residential sources, such as solar. People must also embrace energy efficiency and be willing to sacrifice some measure of comfort and convenience to reduce energy needs, he said.
Eldon Karr was diagnosed in December with lung cancer. His wife also faces health concerns. He said the Bent Mountain community pulled together to create a “Karr Care Group,” whose members often provide food and other support for the couple.
Communities sometimes suffer dissension as major energy infrastructure projects unfold, when one property owner cooperates with project principals and another does not.
The Karrs and Chapman said they hope such rifts won’t develop on Bent Mountain.
“It’s not just the environment up here,” Eldon Karr said. “It’s the people, the generosity of the community up here. That is a story that has to be told.”
On Monday, the Boones learned that surveyors were nearby, with vehicles pulled to the side of Foggy Ridge Road. Mavis and Blair Boone drove a short distance and found survey crew members and Robin Wall, a right-of-way agent for Coates Field Service, an Oklahoma-based contractor working for Mountain Valley.
Wall and the Boones had interacted before and Blair Boone said he and his mother did not trust her. Wall reached out to shake Blair’s hand, a gesture he ignored.
“I will not shake hands with someone who is coming to steal our land,” he said later.
If FERC approves the project, Mountain Valley will have access to eminent domain to acquire easements across private property.
“The idea that the U.S. government would compel us to sell any rights to our land to a private corporation is repugnant to my mother, to me and my sister, as it is to many people in this community and this state,” Blair Boone said.
His mother said worries about the pipeline have troubled her for nearly a year.
“I have a little hope that we might get rid of it,” Mavis Boone said. “Just a little bit of hope. I’m not ready to give up. I told my children that I’m going to go down fighting.”