Six West Virginia landowners have responded to a pipeline developer's threats of legal action by filing preemptive lawsuits of their own, asking courts in Monroe and Summers counties to prevent the developer's agents from entering the three couples' properties or to at least limit the agents' activities.
The matching lawsuits were filed Wednesday in both counties by Appalachian Mountain Advocates, which has offices in Lewisburg.
The plaintiffs in the Monroe suit are Bryan C. McCurdy and Doris W. McCurdy of Greenville, and the plaintiffs in the Summers suit are Thomas T. Bouldin, Susan A. Bouldin, Donald R. Milam and Mary Ann Milam, all of whom have Alderson mailing addresses but who own property near Pence Springs, in Summers County. Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC is named as defendant in both actions.
All three couples own property in the proposed path of the 300-mile long pipeline which, if approved by federal regulators, will provide a conduit for natural gas from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia. The pipeline developers have contacted the landowners along that path to gain permission to survey, appraise, test and study their properties prior to, presumably, taking the land via a power commonly known as "eminent domain," a process whereby the government or authorized private person or corporation pays "just compensation" to acquire the land for public use.
The lawsuits challenge the underlying right to invoke the power of eminent domain claimed by Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC in order to access the plaintiffs' private properties. In the suits, Appalachian Mountain Advocates senior attorney, Derek O. Teaney, maintains that Mountain Valley seeks to set its agents upon the plaintiffs' properties to engage in activities beyond the limited authority State Code provides for "corporate bodies" conducting pre-condemnation surveys.
Teaney told The Register-Herald that Mountain Valley does not meet the standard of "public use" set by State Code for eminent domain to apply, because the natural gas carried by the pipeline will not be used by West Virginians. There has been no indication by the developer that the line will do anything other than transport gas from point A to point B, with no distribution to intervening communities or individual customers along the way.
Teaney argues in the suits, "Because the pipeline will not be put to a public use, defendant is not invested with the power of eminent domain" under State Code. And, because Mountain Valley is not invested with the power of eminent domain, the suits maintain that MVP "does not have a right to enter plaintiffs' property for any purpose."
Attached to the suits are copies of form letters sent to all of the plaintiffs — with the salutation "Dear Landowner" — over the signature of Stephen E. Hastings, counsel for Mountain Valley. The letters, all of which are dated Feb. 24, tout the 300-mile pipeline's upside as being "job creation and other positive economic benefits for individuals in your area."
Hastings assures the recipients of the correspondence that "allowing access for surveys, appraisals, tests and studies does not mean that you are allowing access for construction of the pipeline," but he does reference the portion of State Code that governs eminent domain.
The threat of litigation comes in the final paragraph of those letters.
"If we have not received consent to access your property for the surveys, appraisals, tests and studies requested in this letter by March 9, 2015, legal action will likely be taken in order to obtain the necessary access," Hastings writes. "We hope this will not be required and we look forward to working with you."
According to the lawsuits, the letters arrived after each of the three couples had been contacted by telephone or mail and refused access to their properties. Although the Milams at first permitted Mountain Valley's agents to have access to their land, the couple later withdrew permission because they were "dissatisfied with the intrusiveness of the surveying activities," their suit asserts.
The suits ask the courts to declare that State Code does not authorize Mountain Valley or its representatives to enter the plaintiffs' lands "because the pipeline is not a public use of private property and, accordingly, (Mountain Valley) is not invested with the power of eminent domain." The suits further ask that an order be issued either prohibiting Mountain Valley from entering the properties in question or, in the alternative, limiting the scope of any survey that is allowed and prohibiting Mountain Valley from entering certain areas of the properties.