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October 29, 2013

Pipeline foes aim scrutiny at surveyors

By Joe Mahoney Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — Opponents of the proposed Constitution Pipeline said Monday they’ve created a new “landowner response team” to document interactions and alleged confrontations between agents and contractors for the $683-million project and property owners whose land would be traversed if the proposal is authorized.

“The team was established in response to complaints of property rights violations and other abuses by the Constitution Pipeline Company and its agents,” Robert Nied, the director of the Center for Sustainable Rural Communities, said in a statement.

He said the complaints would be investigated by the response team if they arise in Delaware and Schoharie counties. The proposed pathway of the industrial natural gas line would run through both counties for long stretches before connecting to two existing pipelines in the Schoharie town of Wright. The pipeline would originate in Susquehanna County, Pa., before entering portions of Broome and Chenango Counties, and then running into Delaware County.

Responding to questions from The Daily Star, Nied said he knows of no specific instances in which trespassing by agents for the pipeline company have been documented.

“We have plenty of anecdotal evidence, but no one has documented this effectively,” he said, suggesting one of the goals of the new team is to document problems landowners are having with the agents.

He contended that the agents have tried to push landowners into giving permission to conduct surveys by saying the vast majority of owners have authorized them. That claim, he said, is contradicted by the large number of Schoharie County landowners who have refused to allow the surveys on their property.

“They’re telling people: ‘This is a done deal, and the vast majority of people have already signed,’” Nied said.

Christopher Stockton, a spokesman for the Constitution Pipeline, a project backed by four energy companies, said if any land owners have had problems with the land agents, they are encouraged to contact the company immediately.

“Constitution Pipeline Company is committed to dealing fairly with each landowner and treating all landowners with respect and honor their decision with regard to granting survey permission,” Stockton said. “It remains our strict policy to only survey on properties where we have obtained permission from the landowner.”

The company needs to acquire easements along the proposed path in order to construct the 124-mile transmission line. If the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission authorizes the project, it would confer eminent domain power to the company, giving it the potential authority to gain the easements even if landowners rejected survey requests and signaled they do not want the pipeline cutting through their property.

Stockton said the company began the easement acquisition process in March, noting it is “currently ongoing.”

“We are currently making offers that are in excess of the appraised easement value,” he said.

Those values, he said, are determined by “local third parties” who have expertise in the local real estate market and are retained by his company.

The concerns being generated among landowners regarding the proposed easements have attracted representatives of two law firms to schedule what they are billing as “an informational meeting” at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Marriott Hotel, Susquehanna Board Room, located at 116 Courtyard Drive, Oneonta.

One of the firms, Biersdorf & Associates, described itself in a press release as “a nationwide eminent domain law firm that only represents property owners.”

“Our firm is speaking with affected property owners who are concerned about upcoming deadlines for acceptance of ‘premium’ offers,” the Biersdorf firm said in the release. “There is also concern amongst property owners regarding the amount of compensation being offered, their rights in the process, and questions regarding the eminent domain process.”

Dan Biersdorf of the Biersdorf firm and Jon Santemma of the law firm Farrell Fritz, P.C., the co-author of the textbook “Condemnation Law in New York,” will facilitate the public meeting to discuss the easement valuation process and how this compares to offers made by Williams. They are also expected to provide information on the eminent-domain process in New York, and discuss the costs of pursuing a claim.

The pipeline company has said it hopes the system can become operational in March 2015. It is currently working on a draft environmental impact statement. After that document is completed, the FERC is expected to schedule a series of public hearings on it.

One of the main opposition groups, Stop the Pipeline, has contended the company’s target date for making the pipeline operational is unrealistic, citing the fact that state officials have nudged the company to further study the possibility of co-locating the pipeline along the Interstate 88 corridor. State officials have also questioned the number of stream crossings and raised concern about the potential impact on fish populations.

Proponents of the pipeline include both business groups and labor unions who argue it will bring jobs to the region and help wean the nation from foreign sources of energy.

Nied urged landowners who are encountering difficulties with surveyors or land agents to contact the new response team at 1-800-795-1467.