Morally, Nelson County landowners are spot-on: Their property rights, surrendered under threat of eminent domain, should be returned to them.
Following approval of corporate plans to build a 600-mile natural gas pipeline from West Virginia, through much of Virginia, and into North Carolina, developers were given the right to exercise eminent domain to acquire land for the project.
Eminent domain is the process by which governments or private entities can take private land for public purposes. The public purpose in this instance was supplying homes and businesses deemed in need of greater access to energy sources. (However, as opponents noted at the time, at least some of the gas was slated for export, not local use.)
Some landowners along the line resisted to the bitter end and required the Atlantic Coast Pipeline consortium to exercise eminent domain to take their land.
Owners are supposed to be paid fair market value. But because land values can fluctuate under various assessments, some chose not to risk getting lower prices under eminent domain and instead negotiated settlements that gave the consortium easements for the pipeline through their land.
This is the “threat” they faced: They knew they would lose the land under eminent domain; by settling for easements, they at least had some control over the results.
Meanwhile, even though the pipeline had yet to receive full and final approvals, the construction consortium was given permission to begin felling trees along the route as a time-saving measure. But contractors in charge of the tree-cutting began violating environmental regulations.
This just fueled further opposition to the pipeline. Environmentalists already had warned that digging for the pipeline would endanger waterways. The project would slash through a national park and across the Appalachian Trail. And it would compromise communities such as Union Hill, founded by freed slaves in Buckingham County next door to Nelson.
The ACP consortium was fined, in Virginia and elsewhere, for its environmental lapses.
Early last year, it also lost a lawsuit — and, along with it, a state air pollution control permit — over impact to Union Hill. That loss was the eighth reversal for the consortium in a string of legal decisions.
Meanwhile, the cost of the project was ballooning. At the same time, society and science both were moving closer toward green energy, which was become both cheaper and more popular.
Finally last year, the consortium pulled the plug on the ACP and sold off its natural gas division.
But it held onto the easements.
Nelson County owners argue that full use of their land should be returned to them — and, moreover, that the land should be restored as closely as possible to its original condition.
They contend that because the pipeline project no longer exists, there is no public purpose to be served — and therefore no reason to keep land or easements that were surrendered in the face of eminent domain.
The Nelson County Board of Supervisors supports them. The lingering easements, it says, can reduce the value of that land — and therefore reduce the tax revenue generated for the county, making this a public policy issue.
It has endorsed a letter asking the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission to require the consortium to negotiate new agreements with the landowners.
Morally, Nelson County landowners have every right to expect the full use of their land to be returned to them, now that no need for Atlantic Coast Pipeline easements or eminent domain remains.
Legally, they might have a tough battle persuading authorities to share their position. We keep waiting for the other shoe to drop — and for easement holders to cite small-print legalese or obscure precedents supporting their power to retain the easements.
Instead, we hope the consortium companies will take the higher path and renegotiate settlements with Nelson’s landowners.