Diverse panel discusses impacts of East Coast pipelines, eminent domain policy

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Panel discusses implications of eminent domain policy on landowners. COURTESY PHOTO / WM.EDU

A panel of five speakers gathered Feb. 2 in Washington Hall to discuss the topic of eminent domain, specifically in relation to the Mountain Valley Pipeline that is planned to run through Virginia and West Virginia, as well as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The Student Environmental Action Coalition hosted the panel and discussion in conjunction with Peninsula Indivisible, a local activist group concerned with current issues such as civil rights and the environment. 

Following an introductory video on the two proposed pipelines, the five speakers were introduced. They included Joseph Sherman ’09, M.A. ’13, an eminent domain attorney; Chip Lollar, another attorney who concentrates on eminent domain cases; Vanessa Bolin, a Native American community member, activist and speaker who protested the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock; Kelly DeLucia, a realtor and candidate for the House of Delegates 96th district in 2017; and Paulette Johnson, a Suffolk homeowner whose land is being taken via eminent domain for the ACP.  

Sherman started off the discussion by emphasizing the policy changes that needed to occur to see a change in the way big corporations have access to the land of property owners.  

“What we need to see is a major policy change at the highest levels,” Sherman said. “The reason there is a proliferation of natural gas pipelines is because the federal government is guaranteeing a 14 percent return on investment.”   

“What we need to see is a major policy change at the highest levels,” Sherman said. “The reason there is a proliferation of natural gas pipelines is because the federal government is guaranteeing a 14 percent return on investment.”   

He explained that although Virginia landowners have taken measures to be protected, they can still be taken advantage of by natural gas companies.  

“If you read the Constitution of Virginia, Article 1, Section 11, you’ll notice that they carved out an exception for the utility companies, so it doesn’t apply to Dominion. It doesn’t apply to the natural gas companies, and they’re exploiting that loophole right now.” 

After Sherman spoke, Lollar presented his ideas on resolving some of the issues that come along with eminent domain.  

“One of the ways you can change things is through reforming the Natural Gas Act,” Lollar said. “Where is this gas going to go? We don’t really know. Some of it may be used locally, some of it may very well go overseas, but if we changed something in the Natural Gas Act and said that you can’t ship gas overseas, then that takes away the incentive to build these pipelines.”  

Lollar emphasized that community organization against easements is an important step to take against the pipelines. Easements are contracts that allow natural gas companies to take landowners’ land without having to use eminent domain.  

“If you got everyone together and said, ‘we’re not going to sign an easement,’ these projects would be very hard to move forward,” Lollar said.  

Lollar also pointed out the necessity of education to understand the impact of proposed pipelines.  

“A lot of people don’t know about pipelines. They don’t know what kind of environmental hazards they have, like being in your backyard and contaminating wells,” Lollar said. “These pipelines are not new, they are everywhere, but what’s so unique about these two in Virginia is they’re crossing a plethora of waterways, and going up and down these huge mountains, where there’s crazy erosion. Between the waterways and the landscape, you’ve got some serious engineering obstacles.” 

DeLucia, an expert on fair market value, followed Lollar’s thoughts by expressing how difficult eminent domain makes estimating the fair market value of property.  

“One of the biggest problems, from my perspective in trying to figure out the fair market value when you’re dealing with eminent domain,” DeLucia said. “You’re not in a fair market, you don’t have the laws of supply and demand, you don’t have a free market, you have an owner who is being forced into giving up some of their land.”  

Bolin continued the discussion by recognizing the traditional lands of the Nottoway and the Meherrin tribes, which are now being disputed.  

“These pipeline companies, these extractive industries, always seek out marginalized communities – rural, poor, people of color, indigenous,” Bolin said. “I hear people talking about the land they’ve had in their family for hundreds of years, while, we had it for thousands. That’s one thing I want to drive home to you, that eminent domain and the taking of those lands is nothing new to my people and while it still hurts, we’re still here to help you.”  

Bolin also echoed Sherman and Lollar’s thoughts on the need for policy change.  

“We need to change the laws that give at-profit corporations the right to claim eminent domain, that does not serve in your best interest, our best interest, the states’ best interest or the environment’s best interest,” Bolin said. 

Johnson ended the discussion by delivering an emotional testimony about the land of her “forever home,” which is now being taken from her and her family. When they moved onto their property in southern Suffolk, Virginia, Johnson and her husband Clay worked with the Virginia Department of Forestry to plant 3,500 trees.  

“We wanted to bring the woodlands back to the property,” Johnson said. 

However, by the end of 2014, the Johnsons received their first letter from the ACP. 

“Clay and I didn’t pay much attention to it until we got that letter that said, ‘We are taking your property by eminent domain,’” Johnson said. 

“Clay and I didn’t pay much attention to it until we got that letter that said, ‘We are taking your property by eminent domain,’” Johnson said. 

The tragedy for the Johnsons came from learning that a path over 100 feet wide would be created, clearing through their lovingly planted trees.  

“By our calculations we will be losing over 600 trees,” Johnson said. 

Johnson concluded her thoughts tearfully saying that both she and her husband are too tired to fight the ACP any longer.  

“Our dreams and plans for the property are no longer attainable.” 

Finally, Joe Sherman underlined the relevance of eminent domain concerns to every citizen.  

“Private property is the foundation of every civil liberty, and when there is an injustice done to private property rights it’s important that we speak up, and we stand up, and we defend what is the bedrock for all civil liberties.”