By Peggy Mackenzie
A Monroe County Circuit Court judge ruled against the developer of a proposed natural gas pipeline to survey a couple’s property without their permission.
Judge Robert Irons ruled that Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC (MVP) had failed to establish, as required by West Virginia law, that the pipeline project offered sufficient public use for West Virginians to justify entering private property without an owner’s permission for surveying.
At the end of the four-hour hearing, Irons granted the motion of property owners Bryan and Doris McCurdy, who were represented pro bono by lawyers from Appalachian Mountain Advocates (AMA) of Lewisburg, and issued an injunction barring MVP surveyors from entering the McCurdys’ property without their consent.
“While we respect the court’s bench ruling today, we will review the written order once it is received and consider our options going forward,” said MVP spokeswoman Natalie Cox in an emailed statement.
MVP proposed to build and bury a 42-inch-diameter, high-pressure natural gas transmission pipeline from Wetzel County to the Transco pipeline in Pittsylvania, VA.
The legal battle began in March of this year when landowners in Monroe and Summers counties denied MVP surveyors access to their properties. Several took legal steps, filing complaints in the circuit courts of both counties. Their complaints, submitted by attorney Derek Teaney with AMA, argued against the company’s eminent domain rights.
Despite attempts by MVP defense lawyer Charles Piccirillo to make public use a non-issue, Teaney quoted specific sections of the WV Code, which cite public use as a requisite for the exercise of eminent domain for purposes of surveying in West Virginia.
Piccirillo made an oral motion for a “directed verdict.” (The legal term for a motion requesting a judge to make a decision based upon an assertion that the plaintiff has raised no genuine issue.) Irons denied the motion, stating he could not ignore language in the WV Code. He said to Piccirillo, “You have based your case on ‘no need to consider public use.’ My ruling is we do have to go there.”
As currently designed, there is no commitment from the pipeline developers to serve customers along the route in West Virginia, according to testimony by Sean Posey, project manager for the project, during the hearing. However, he said since MVP is in the pre-filing phase of seeking approval of the interstate pipeline project from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), “We fully expect usage to develop in West Virginia.”
Irons replied that the defendants had presented no evidence to refute the plaintiffs assertion that West Virginia residents along the pipeline route would not benefit from construction of the MVP. He said he would be willing to reconsider his ruling if the pipeline developers present convincing evidence to the contrary, advising the MVP contingent that they would improve their chances of gaining eminent domain powers if they demonstrate that West Virginia gas utility companies will tap this pipeline. Otherwise, he said, the pipeline, as designed, provides “very little benefit to the people of West Virginia.”