Flipping the script on eminent domain

Matt Martin
May 5, 2014

The federal government is considering an application to build a natural gas pipeline from Pennsylvania to Schoharie County in New York. Often, the pipeline companies will use the threat of eminent domain as a way to pressure landowners into signing a lease agreement. But some landowners and activist groups are calling their bluff.

Just a short hike up the hill from Catherine Holleran’s house in New Milford Pennsylvania is a small grove of maple trees.

“This blue main line is for tapping trees. We already took down a bunch of the little tubing because the season is over,” says Holleran. 

Holleran has 125 maple trees on her property. 

But she may lose all 125 of the trees. Holleran says energy infrastructure company Williams wants to dig out the small maple grove to make room for the proposed pipeline. The 124-mile underground line would run natural gas from fracking sites in Northeastern Pennsylvania to just west of Albany.

But, unlike many of her neighbors, Holleran is refusing to sign a right-of-way agreement with the company. She plans to force them to take it through eminent domain.

The government can use eminent domain to seize a person’s property for projects deemed to be in the public good, like forcing the sale of a home in the path of a new highway.

Holleran’s daughter, Megan, says the land agents use eminent domain as a way to pressure landowners.

“People are scared. Somebody comes and sits there in your house and says if you don’t sign this paper you won’t get any money for this land and we’ll take it anyway. It’s a flat out lie but that’s what they tell them," says Megan. "They get scared so they get persuaded and talked into it. And then they sign something.”

A small group called Stop The Pipeline has been going door to door to convince landowners that forcing the use of eminent domain is actually a better option then signing an agreement.

According to the group’s website, landowners who sign an agreement lose their right to sue the company, they still have to pay taxes on the leased land, and are liable if anything happens on their property. 

Anne Marie Garti is one of the organizers of Stop The Pipeline. Garti says if landowners welcome eminent domain, oil companies can’t intimidate them with the threat of it.

“It’s no longer a single landowner against the pipeline company. It is all of the landowners joined together with everybody else against the pipeline company,” says Garti.

According to Garti’s group, as of the end of January 70 percent of affected landowners in Delaware County and 60 percent in Schoharie County have not signed a lease.

Garti is hoping the opposition leads the federal government to deny the application.

Chris Stockton is a spokesperson for Williams. He says that, while taking resistant property owners to court is more costly; it’s not going to stop the pipeline.

“That’s something that’s built into our schedule. It’s something we plan for,” says Stockton. 

Stockton says with a signed agreement the company will pay property owners three times the market value of the land, and they are likely to get less through eminent domain proceedings.

“Instead of those dollars potentially being paid to that landowner, those dollars are going to be paid to attorneys. And at the end of the day nobody wins,” says Stockton.

Back in the house, Catherine Holleran shows off a copy of the right-of-way agreement the company wants her to sign.

“I went through here and I started numbering them because it was ridiculous. I just started writing ‘No no you’re not doing that.’ Some of the stuff I just crossed it off,” says Holleran. 

On each page she has used a purple highlighter to mark all the parts she disagrees with.

“So here’s where they gave us for damages, sixteen thousand for damages, for all the damages on the property. When he called me back he said, ‘we’re going to add another thirty three hundred for your maple trees.’ I thought, ‘Are you joking me?’ Thirty three hundred dollars for 50 years worth of maple trees?” says Holleran. 

The pipeline company cannot start eminent domain proceedings until the federal government approves the project. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is set to issue an environmental impact study next month with a final decision set for September.