Natural Gas Pipeline in Lancaster County – Landowners’ Legal Rights for Just Compensation

According to local newspapers, a Tulsa, Oklahoma company, Williams Partners, continues to move forward with a proposed natural gas pipeline in Lancaster County. The pipeline is expected to impact the following Lancaster County municipalities: Drumore, Martic, Conestoga, Manor, West Hempfield, East Donegal, and Mount Joy.[1]  Many landowners ask: Who gives them the right to do this? And what can I do?

Generally, when long-ranging natural gas pipelines are installed, it is done under the federal government’s power of eminent domain. Eminent domain allows the government to take land for the purpose of public use. The federal government can delegate this power to government agencies and also to private corporations. The Natural Gas Act, 15 U.S.C. 717f, allows private companies to exercise eminent domain for the construction of natural gas pipelines. Sometimes, gas pipelines will be installed under state eminent domain laws.

Thus, the first method of defense—arguing that there is no right for the gas company to put the line in—is generally unsuccessful. This does not mean that there is nothing to be done.  A detailed description of the process can be found on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s website, http://www.ferc.gov/for-citizens/citizen-guides/citz-guide-gas.pdf. As noted in the brochure, FERC can be contacted with environmental concerns or other comments.

Affected Lancaster landowners may have already received notice from Williams or other parties regarding the potential construction of the pipeline on their property. Williams will also host open house meetings, as required by federal regulations, which can be attended by the public to receive information and make comments. A flow-chart showing the process can be found here: http://www.ferc.gov/help/processes/flow/gas-2.asp. An open house meeting was recently announced: Tuesday, April 29, 2014 at 10am at the Lancaster County Government Center, 150 N. Queen St., Room 102-104. County Commissioners are expected to be in attendance and there is expected to be a period reserved for open comments from the public.[2]

Certainly, landowners have the right to question the ability of Williams to install the gas line. But landowners should also consider the negotiation of just compensation for any pipeline easements that transgress their land. By actively developing a dialogue with the gas company, landowners may be able to timely negotiate certain aspects of the pipeline and just compensation. Thus, in the early stages of the pipeline process, it might be in the landowner’s interest to allow the gas company on the property to survey and mark the path of the pipeline. While doing so, the landowner may be able to ensure and negotiate some details of the placement of the line (e.g. don’t place the line through my septic tank!)

Also, by communicating with the gas company, paying attention to the letters received in the mail, and attending the open house meetings, the landowner may be able to “get on the gas company’s radar.” Generally, the gas company has two methods to gain access to the land for installation of the line: (1) an easement agreement; or (2) filing a lawsuit for condemnation (eminent domain). Most landowners (and gas companies) seek to avoid litigation; thus, engaging with the gas company are merely the first steps of negotiating the placement of the pipeline and receiving compensation.

If no resolution is reached, or if the gas company has found the landowner to be non-responsive, the gas company is likely to file a lawsuit seeking the right to access the land and install the pipeline. At that point, the landowner still receives just compensation; merely, it must reach the resolution through litigation, resulting in either a settlement or trial. Whether negotiating with the gas company, or litigating the amount of just compensation, it is advisable to seek legal advice to protect your rights and obtain the best possible outcome.

Harmon & Davies, P.C. is a Lancaster based law firm with experience in construction and real estate law. For more information regarding legal assistance with the Williams pipeline, please call Harmon & Davies, P.C. at 717-291-2236. This article is authored by attorney Jeffrey C. Bright and is intended for educational purposes and to give you general information and a general understanding of the law only, not to provide specific legal advice.  Any particular questions should be directed to your legal counsel or, if you do not have one, please feel free to contact us.


[1] Ad Crable, “Officials confirm Solanco part of proposed gas line would follow power lines,” Lancaster Online (Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era) April 8, 2014.

[2] Ad Crable, “Builder of pipeline planned for Lancaster County to face public for first time,” Lancaster Online (Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era) April 11, 2014.

 

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