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Private land taken for a pipeline: At what price?
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Private land taken for a pipeline: At what price?

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Pipeline survey (copy)

Roanoke County police Sgt. Dan Walters listens to Bent Mountain landowner Kathy Chandler during a 2017 dispute with Mountain Valley Pipeline surveyors. A trial began Tuesday to decide just compensation for Chandler and her husband, whose 111-acre rural property and custom-built home atop Bent Mountain will be bisected by the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

For the first time since a natural gas pipeline used its power of eminent domain to take private property three years ago, a jury is being asked to determine a fair price.

A trial began Tuesday to decide just compensation for James and Kathy Chandler, whose 111-acre rural property and custom-built home atop Bent Mountain will be bisected by the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Dillon ruled in 2018 that Mountain Valley had a right to begin construction on 8.6 acres of the land — over the objections of the Chandlers, who see it as a nightmare to their dream home.

“You’ll see the ugly scar the pipeline is cutting across the Chandler property, and how it is forever altering their use of the property,” Stephen Clarke, an attorney for the Chandlers, told the jury.

When Dillon granted Mountain Valley immediate possession of an easement through the land, it was part of a giant case that involved about 300 properties in Southwest Virginia that the 303-mile pipeline needed to pass through.

Since then, each landowner has had a separate proceeding to determine how much they should be paid by the Pittsburgh-based joint venture of five companies building the pipeline.

Many of the cases have been settled, either through voluntary agreements struck between landowners and Mountain Valley or after a judge’s ruling on evidentiary issues forced a resolution. About a dozen cases remain open, according to court records.

The Chandlers’ is the first to make it to a jury.

Although a key part of the opposition to Mountain Valley has been the way it took private land for its own profit, that will not be in question during the trial. Under the Natural Gas Act, the power of eminent domain was a given once it was established that the pipeline would serve a public good. Rather, the jury will be asked to determine a fair market value of a landowner’s loss — putting a highly emotional issue largely in the hands of appraisers.

In his opening arguments, Clarke did not delve into the numbers. Instead, he told the jury about how the Chandlers had long dreamed of moving to the Bent Mountain community in Roanoke County.

They found the perfect piece of land and decided to build a luxury home that “would look old but feel new,” Clarke said.

Parts from a historic barn and a log cabin were used as furnishings, and the Chandlers hauled rocks from their mountain land to construct beautiful stone fireplaces.

When it was done, “they knew they could come home and be at peace,” Clarke said.

Then, about seven years ago, Mountain Valley announced plans for a buried pipeline that would transport natural gas at high pressure from northern West Virginia to Pittsylvania County, where another pipeline would take it to markets in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern regions of the country.

“It cuts through the heart of their property,” Clarke said. “For the last three years, they’ve lived next to a construction zone.”

Construction of the $6.2 billion project has been slowed by court battles with environmental groups, who say the pipeline is marring the landscape and polluting the waters of Southwest Virginia. And for the past year, jury trials on just compensation have been put on hold by the coronavirus pandemic.

Mountain Valley has said that about 85% of the properties it needed for the pipeline were acquired voluntarily, and in those cases there was no need to sue the landowners under eminent domain.

So far, the company has paid approximately $40 million to Virginia landowners and $85 million to West Virginia landowners to acquire land rights for the project, according to company spokeswoman Natalie Cox.

In his opening statements Tuesday, Mountain Valley attorney Wade Massie said an appraisal conducted for the company found the Chandler’s home and land to be worth about $1 million.

News of the pipeline diminished that value by about 15%, the appraisal found, which would mean the Chandlers are entitled to about $150,000 in just compensation.

An appraisal for the Chandlers put a higher value on their property. But Massie said that estimate of $1.6 million was based on the mistaken belief that the land could be subdivided into residential lots, when in fact its access by a private road would not allow such development.

In their own opinion, the Chandlers believe that their dream home is worth $2.7 million, Massie told the jury, and that the pipeline would diminish its value by 65%. That would mean Mountain Valley would owe them $1.7 million.

After viewing the site Wednesday morning, the jury will return to the courtroom to hear what is likely to be a battle of expert opinions over appraisals, comparable sales and the like.

Mountain Valley, Clarke argued, sees the condemnation much differently than the Chandlers do.

“There will be a clear difference in credibility between the parties,” he told the jury, “and your decision will be made easier by that difference.”

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Laurence Hammack covers environmental issues, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and business and enterprise stories. He has been a reporter for The Roanoke Times for more than three decades.

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