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November 1, 2013

Landowners, lawyers meet over pipeline

By Joe Mahoney Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — Landowners along the proposed Constitution Pipeline route should spurn financial inducements being offered by the project planners in return for easement rights because they will likely get a better deal after eminent domain proceedings begin, according to two lawyers specializing in takings law.

On Wednesday night, about 100 local property owners crowded into hotel meeting room in Oneonta for a presentation on their legal options by lawyers Dan Biersdorf of Minneapolis and Joe Santemma of New York City.

Both lawyers predicted that it’s unlikely the pipeline project will be derailed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. FERC is the agency being asked to license the natural gas transmission system that would send shale gas being extracted in Pennsylvania to existing pipelines in the Schoharie town of Wright.

The presentation was scheduled at a time when scores of landowners are reviewing offers sent to them by Constitution Pipeline for easement rights. Biersdorf’s law firm obtained the names of the propriety owners by studying the 124-mile route and researching deed records.

If the project is licensed by the federal agency, the company would have the option of going to either federal court — since a federal agency is involved in conferring the eminent domain authority to the company — or to state court in order to initiate legal action against the land owners who refuse to grant the easements, Biersdorf said.

“You’re better off not taking the offer and using the eminent domain process to maximize your claim,” Biersdorf told The Daily Star. He pointed out that, under New York law, the landowners can also seek to recover all costs and fees associated with the eminent domain action.

Biersdorf and Santemma also suggested that the land owners could potentially collect sums that are related to the “market oriented transaction” of the pipeline project, rather than the market value put on the strips of land under which the pipeline would be buried.

Biersdorf said his firm would be willing to represent virtually any landowner facing eminent domain in connection with the project. Out of those targeted properties, he said, he would select the “best cases” for a trial that could help determine a “benchmark” that could eventually be used to determine the amounts that all impacted landowners should collect from the pipeline operator.

Anne Marie Garti of East Meredith, one of the organizers of the grassroots opposition group Stop the Pipeline, said the advice from the two lawyers dovetails with the guidance her group is providing to landowners.

“It’s better to go through eminent domain,” Garti said. “It’s better not to sign an easement agreement. If someone signs an easement, it’s forever.”

But Garti disagreed with Biersdorf’s contention that there’s a high probability the pipeline will be approved. She said FERC will have to wrestle with the fact that scores of landowners have refused to allow surveys and are balking at the easement offers.

Biersdorf said the only way to scuttle the pipeline project is through the “political process” and succeeding in getting FERC to reject the license application.

“With the short notice we had for this meeting and the fact our letter (to landowners) went out very recently, I was frankly stunned that we had such a large turnout,” Biersdorf said. “There are obviously some pretty strong feelings out there. For this many people to show up tells me that the project has not given them a good avenue for learning what their rights are. It’s very hard for people to deal with the fact that their land could be taken away from them.”