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Franklin County family repels surveyors with help of sheriff's office

Franklin County family repels surveyors with help of sheriff's office

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About 9:20 a.m., Carolyn Reilly heard from across Teel Creek the cracking sound of a branch snapping. Seconds later, the sound repeated.

“Here they come,” she said.

On Thursday, Reilly and her family worked together to anticipate, encounter and peacefully repel from their Franklin County farm a crew of surveyors working for Mountain Valley Pipeline.

The roughly three-hour drama that unfolded that morning has played out many times and in many places in recent years. The cast for these dramas has featured a subset of regional landowners along the proposed course of the 42-inch diameter, high-pressure natural gas pipeline. They have fought to resist efforts by survey crews to study their property’s potential for a hosting a portion of the route of the 303-mile buried pipeline.

Especially fierce resistance has reigned in portions of Roanoke and Franklin counties. On occasion, this opposition has created quandaries for law enforcement departments whose officers have felt torn about how to respond when residents they’re obliged to serve and protect seek their intervention.

As proposed, the $3.5 billion project would transport natural gas extracted via fracking in the Appalachian Basin and move the gas from Wetzel County, West Virginia, to another pipeline in Pittsylvania County.

A controversial state law allows a natural gas company to survey private property without an owner’s consent as long as the company has provided landowners adequate notice of its intentions and plans.

A certified letter to Carolyn Reilly, her husband, Ian Reilly, and Carolyn’s parents, Dave and Betty Werner, had alerted them that surveyors intended to inspect their property on June 1 and June 2. The Reillys and the Werners co-own and operate Four Corners Farm, whose 58 acres include property along the banks where Teel and Little creeks join en route to the Blackwater River.

The family had successfully rebuffed surveyors on four other occasions, dating back to May 2016. On Thursday morning, they hoped to do so again and mapped out a strategy.

First, Ian Reilly drove to Boones Mill to see whether survey crews were staging, as they often did when working in Franklin County, at the Shell service station and convenience store. They were.

Carolyn Reilly had walked through the farm’s bottomland pasture to reach a wooded spot along Teel and Little creeks where the family expected that the crew would venture off a neighboring property to access Four Corners Farm. Mountain Valley has its eye on the pasture, envisioning burying the company’s pipeline across the field where existing lines feed water to troughs meant to keep the farm’s cows out of the creeks.

On Thursday, the Reillys and Werners attempted once again to thwart those plans.

About 9:23 a.m., the first of what turned out to be a crew of 18 surveyors became visible through the foliage. Carolyn Reilly greeted one from her spot across Little Creek.

“It’s probably just better to turn around and go back,” she said. “We don’t want you on our property, anyways.”

The surveyor glanced over but did not reply. A companion said the crew intended to survey the property.

Other crew members appeared out of the brush and lined up parallel to Little Creek. When it became clear to Reilly that they intended to cross the creek and venture onto the farm, she instructed her mother to summon help from the sheriff’s office.

Several surveyors crossed Little Creek, climbed the bank and headed single file toward the pasture. Ian Reilly placed himself between them and the pasture. The surveyors stopped. The man directly facing Reilly said he was with the crew’s safety team. He said the surveyors would not venture farther until law enforcement arrived.

He told the Reillys that Robin Wall, an employee of Coates Field Service who helps supervise survey crews for Mountain Valley, planned to meet with the sheriff’s deputy at the entrance to the drive that leads off Old Mill Creek Lane to Four Corners Farm.

Carolyn Reilly and her father left the pasture and drove to the rendezvous, where they found Wall and a man with her talking to Sgt. Lewis Wimmer of the sheriff’s office. Lt. Erik Mollin arrived in a separate cruiser.

Ultimately, Wall agreed to remove the surveyors from the farm. Mollin told Reilly and her father that Mountain Valley would likely seek a court injunction sanctioning entry on the property.

Afterward, Reilly expressed gratitude for the sheriff department’s willingness to intervene.

This week, Maj. Mike Bowman said the office has no written policy about responding to survey disputes.

“We are here to keep the peace, whether it’s with the pipeline or the landowners,” Bowman said. “We’re really neutral because the law is a little confusing. They want deputies to be lawyers, and we’re not lawyers.”

He said the department’s current approach is to direct surveyors to leave properties when landowners object to their presence.

“If they want to get on the property, then they need to get an injunction,” and if a judge grants the injunction the department will enforce it, Bowman said.

He said surveyor supervisors have been “very cordial” and cooperative when asked to leave properties.

If a crew refused to leave, Bowman said, landowners could seek from the magistrate’s office warrants charging surveyors with criminal trespass. If such warrants were issued, deputies would enforce them, he said.

Policies change

Law enforcement departments in other counties along the proposed pipeline route have struggled to define their role in survey conflicts. The state’s surveying law seems to grant crews working for Mountain Valley Pipeline — and the separate but similar Atlantic Coast Pipeline — the right to enter private property without fear of prosecution for criminal trespass.

To date, efforts by landowners and their attorneys to challenge the constitutionality of the law have not found footing in either state or federal courts. The Virginia Supreme Court heard two appeals in April related to the law but have not yet ruled.

Initially, Mountain Valley officials told Roanoke County police that surveyors would not enter or would leave private properties for which they had not obtained permission for entry as long as the landowner was present and opposing the work. The company said it would then seek a court order affirming its right to study the property and prohibiting interference with that work.

But as the weeks passed and Mountain Valley failed to gain access to several properties in the Bent Mountain community, the company changed its policy. Mountain Valley said surveyors would no longer leave properties to which the company felt it had legal access. And the county police department announced that it would not ask the crews to leave.

Pipeline foes then turned to the Virginia State Police, seeking intervention.

On May 8, a state trooper directed a survey crew on Bent Mountain to leave land owned by the Terry family. The crew complied. A few days later, however, the state police clarified that its officers would no longer ask crews to leave properties if the surveyors appeared to have authority under the law to study the site.

Meanwhile, Mountain Valley obtained a court injunction prohibiting the Terrys from interfering with future surveying. The company argued that the work was required to submit a complete application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which will decide whether construction of the pipeline offers sufficient public benefit to justify environmental damage and other impacts associated with the project. An attorney for the Terrys cited FERC regulations that suggested the surveying wasn’t necessary, but a judge disagreed.

“In light of the various court rulings permitting MVP surveys, it’s unfortunate that landowners and others continue to interfere with the important and necessary survey work that is required as part of the regulatory process,” Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for the pipeline company, said last week about the surveyors’ unsuccessful attempt to gain entry to Four Corners Farm.

She declined to comment about specifics tied to the conflict at the farm. Cox said the project team “remains confident that we have the legal authority under Virginia statute to access property for survey activity and expects to continue this important survey work in accordance with the strict requirements of Virginia law.”

In Montgomery County, the sheriff’s office told landowners that it will respond when summoned about survey conflicts, said Chief Deputy Brad Sinclair.

“We want to be there to make sure no one is threatened, no one is harmed,” he said.

Deputies obtain identification from surveyors and write a report that landowners can use if they decide to seek trespass warrants, he said.

Sinclair said he is not aware of any warrants being issued and recalled one case in which a magistrate declined a landowner’s request to issue a warrant.

That case involved Cletus and Beverly Bohon, who have property in the Elliston area.

Cletus Bohon said he drove to Christiansburg to seek a warrant but said the magistrate rejected his request.

“It was very disappointing,” he said. “I thought for sure that I had a good case.”

‘A deep struggle’

Authorities along the routes of both pipelines have voiced concerns repeatedly that the often emotional encounters between landowners and surveyors could yield a tragic confrontation. Officers have continued to respond when summoned by landowners or survey crews to try to keep the peace.

Roberta Bondurant, a resident of Bent Mountain who has helped organize survey opposition there, expressed support for the response in Franklin County.

“We applaud Franklin’s Sheriff [Bill] Overton for appreciating the potential for tragedy in allowing survey land agents and crews to run untended through our communities, and for his wisdom in reining in the survey mayhem until the [Virginia] Supreme Court considers the plethora of questions before it,” she said.

Like many landowners in the proposed path of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, the Reillys and Werners first learned about the project in 2014.

In February, Carolyn Reilly was hired by Bold Alliance as a “pipeline fighter” and tasked with organizing opposition to both the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast projects through the newly organized Bold Appalachia. Bold Alliance spun off from Bold Nebraska, which fought the Keystone XL pipeline.

She said last week that the work for Bold Appalachia and her previous efforts to fight the projects have taken a toll, stealing time from farming and from raising her four children, who range in age from 7 to 17, with her husband Ian .

“On one hand, it’s been a deep struggle of keeping my head up and not feeling defeated, as a family and landowner,” she said. “The only reason I can continue and keep going with this is that I do have a faith ... that calls for taking care of the land and being a steward.”

She finds strength also, she said, from a source beyond her, a source she said she calls God.

FERC has said it plans on June 23 to release a final environmental impact statement for the Mountain Valley joint venture, whose partners include an EQT Corp. subsidiary and a subsidiary of RGC Resources, the parent company of Roanoke Gas. With FERC approval, Mountain Valley would have access to federal eminent domain to acquire easements across private properties.

Roanoke Gas has said it intends to install two taps on the pipeline. One would be in Franklin County at a business park near Four Corners Farm. The tap would provide the county access to natural gas, a reality that has boosted support for the pipeline in some quarters of the county.

The county’s board of supervisors has not taken a position on the pipeline. Boards of supervisors in Roanoke, Montgomery, Craig and Giles counties have expressed opposition to it.

Carolyn Reilly said her family will continue to fight the pipeline.

“My heart is with landowners in the struggle to protect our land and water,” she said.

Reporter Casey Fabris contributed to this report.

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