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January 2, 2014

Area tree farmer: I will no longer support pipeline

By Joe Mahoney Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — A pro-drilling Bainbridge tree farmer says he has gone from a supporter of the proposed Constitution Pipeline to a detractor after concluding his real estate value would decline and he would lose his property insurance were the transmission line to be approved.

Bruce Baxter, who raises Christmas trees on his 10-acre spread, told The Daily Star that pipeline representatives offered him a one-time $5,000 payment in return for granting an easement that would allow the developers access to the entire parcel.

Baxter, whose parents also have a tree farm in nearby Afton, said the amount being offered for the easement would cover only about half his local property tax bill for a year.

In a comment sent to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency that will decide if the natural gas transmission line is to be constructed, Baxter outlined his reasons for turning critical after initially agreeing to allow the company to survey his land.

“I have come to the realization that they only care about the stockholders and Wall Street,” he said. He also alleged that a pipeline representative told him the company is applying for a FERC license in order to get eminent domain rights. He said the company representative, whom he only recalled as an individual from Texas, advised him the company wants to use the infrastructure as a feeder line, a classification that would not lead to the company getting eminent domain powers.

Baxter’s comments reflect the public anxiety over the pipeline project in sections of Delaware, Schoharie and Chenango counties where the 124-mile pipeline route would pass through on its way to two existing pipelines in the Schoharie County town of Wright.

While some landowners have already collected payments from the project developers in return for easement rights, many of those owning parcels along the preferred route say they resent the fact they could be forced to allow access to their their farms, woodlots and other parcels if the federal agency empowers the company to gain eminent domain authority.

Christopher Stockton, a spokeswoman for the Constitution Pipeline, said the company has been offering “fair compensation” to the landowners for the easements.

“The valuation of the easement is determined by the market value of land in the area as determined by independent sources such as county deed and tax records, local appraisers, real estate brokers and other real estate professionals,” Stockton said in an email to The Daily Star.

He such such factors as a property’s length, width, existing use and comparable sales in the area, as well as the impact to the remaining property, are all taken into consideration.

“In many cases,” Stockton wrote, “we have made offers up to three times the market value in order to reach a mutually beneficial agreement with the property owner. If a property owner doesn’t believe the offer is fair, it is certainly his or her prerogative to not sign an easement agreement.”

Baxter told The Daily Star that Farm Family Casualty, the insurance company that issued the policy for his Bainbridge property, which includes a residence, would drop him as a customer if a pipeline is routed through his lot.

Stockbridge called that scenario of an insurance company canceling a policy due to the presence of a natural gas pipeline “highly unusual.”

“Williams operates more than 15,000 miles of pipeline and it has been our experience that insurance underwriters do not consider the presence of a transmission pipeline when determining the cost and coverage of property insurance,” he wrote.the

Scott Kurkoski, a lawyer who represents some landowners who have been presented with easement offers, said some landowners have succeeded in negotiating terms to agreements that left them satisfied and compensated appropriately.

The consequences of the pipeline construction, he said, could have a beneficial impact for those who want some clearings to improve hunting season opportunities.

Anne Marie Garti, one of the organizers of the grassroots opposition group Stop the There, said Baxter’s letter to FERC shows that Constitution Pipeline “is using FERC to get easements for gathering lines. There is no eminent domain for gathering lines. They would never be able to get easement agreements for gathering lines.”

The companies that have become partners in the pipeline project are involved in shale gas fracking in northeastern Pennsylvania. However, that form of drilling is not permitted at this time in New York. Constitution Pipeline has said from the beginning of the project that the line would be used to move gas extracted from Pennsylvania to Schoharie County, and that there are no plans to take in gas harvested in New York.