PENCE SPRINGS, W.Va. — Mark Jarrell thought he would be living his retirement dream.
He spent a 42-year career as a golf course manager in Florida. As he neared retirement, he scouted out a little more than 90 pastoral acres in West Virginia, where he’d spent his childhood. He started thinking about the house he would build there on a knoll overlooking the Greenbrier River.
The day he retired, Jan. 14, 2015, he heard about the enormous gas pipeline that seems likely to share his property.
“It nearly splits me in half,” Jarrell said, referring to his Summers County property. “Forty-two percent of my property is going to be inaccessible and unusable to me.”
Jarrell’s story is an example of one of the next big fights in the development of the 303-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline.
The pipeline has received certification from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which considers it to be in the public interest to transport natural gas across state lines to be used as a regional power source.
Late last month, the developers of Mountain Valley Pipeline filed a federal lawsuit to gain eminent domain access to properties in nine West Virginia counties. A similar lawsuit focusing on properties along the pipeline’s path in Virginia was filed on the same date in Roanoke.
The West Virginia lawsuit lists more than 140 pieces of property where the pipeline developers say they need access for easements. It applies to properties along the pipeline’s path in Greenbrier, Monroe, Nicholas, Summers, Braxton, Harrison, Lewis, Webster and Wetzel counties.
The Virginia lawsuit names more than 300 private properties.
Both cases ask for immediate access and entry to be granted prior to just compensation for the property being determined.
Among those being sued is Jarrell, 66.
There’s little doubt where he stands on this matter.
“I just don’t see how they can have a private, for-profit corporation take land from a private landowner,” Jarrell said.
That’s an issue that splits observers of the pipeline issue, even in West Virginia.
Those who support the pipeline say it will provide a much-needed path for West Virginia’s natural gas to reach eastern markets where the supply might fetch higher prices. They make a development argument for the pipeline, which would also contribute to the state’s severance tax base.
But West Virginia also has a strong cultural embrace of private property rights. Issues like eminent domain for pipeline construction or forced pooling for natural gas wells can divide even those who might otherwise be in favor of development.
Because the pipeline is an interstate project, the bulk of the authority has been with the federal government. And many of the issues will play out in federal court.
One issue will be the value of people’s property, which may be hashed out in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver, who is handling the West Virginia eminent domain case.
Lawyers for MVP on Oct. 27 filed a motion for an expedited hearing. The developers say they need access to people’s property by Feb. 1, 2018, to start construction of the pipeline.
Late last week, six property owners in Nicholas and Lewis counties were voluntarily dismissed from the lawsuit because they had reached agreements with MVP. Judge Copenhaver has also directed Mountain Valley Pipeline to make every effort to notify property owners of the lawsuit proceedings.
Another issue, which could be fought more broadly in the federal appeals system, could be the validity of the federal certification, including whether the pipeline project is truly in the public interest.
A major part of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s task was to determine whether the proposed interstate pipeline should be considered a public convenience and necessity.
“We find that the benefits that the MVP Project will provide to the market outweigh any adverse effects on existing shippers, other pipelines and their captive customers, and landowners or surrounding communities,” the majority of the three-member Federal Energy Regulatory Commission concluded earlier this year.
In their federal complaint, the lawyers for MVP cite the certification by FERC.
“Accordingly, it is necessary for MVP to acquire temporary and permanent easements across these properties,” the lawyers wrote.
“Condemnation is necessary because MVP has been unable to negotiate mutually agreeable easement agreements with the landowners.”
That’s the situation in which Jarrell and hundreds of others find themselves.
Jarrell is in the process of building a new timber frame house on property that for many years had been a cattle farm. As he neared retirement, he was a regular guest at his aunt’s house in Summers County while he searched for land.
He bought the property 16 years ago, thinking it could be a peaceful spot to pursue his hobbies of photography and genealogy.
“This has always been a dream,” he said. “I’m not going to let them steal my dream.”
The proposed path of the Mountain Valley Pipeline is about 450 feet away, extending 3,013 feet along a tree-lined ridge. Jarrell says his new house is in the blast zone. He says he was offered $111,000 for pipeline access to his property.
“I described it as having a million-dollar view,” he said. “If somebody wanted to buy it from me, it would take a million and a half dollars.”
Jarrell’s property already has an electricity line right-of-way crossing it. The pipeline would result in a right-of-way too.
The lawyers for MVP say the pipeline will be buried except for some instances.
“The landowners may fully use and enjoy the premises to the extent that such use and enjoyment does not interfere with or obstruct MVP’s rights described herein,” the lawyers for MVP wrote.
Jarrell had envisioned tranquility along his ridge, but he also saw it as a place where he might build some cabins for friends, family and visitors to enjoy
He doesn’t want the pipeline to be built at all, but he’s still trying to persuade the pipeline developers to find an alternate route that avoids or minimizes affecting his property.
Short of that, he says, he’ll see the Mountain Valley Pipeline in court.
“All Americans should believe we have the right to keep whatever it is we care about,” Jarrell said. “We should be able to keep our own property.”