In the pipeline’s path: Property owners object to use of eminent domain

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Five times now since the 1970s, Pearl Finch has faced condemnation of a portion of her private property in western Wilson County for public use.

Land rights are subject to eminent domain when the government can justify a reason to use property for the public good.

There was the time the city of Wilson wanted Finch’s land to build a dam at Buckhorn Reservoir.

Then the city came back for more land for a 300-foot buffer along Contentnea Creak from the dam to N.C. 581.

Then the N.C. Department of Transportation took a slice to make way for utility lines.

Then the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took a little piece to allow construction of a building to measure water tables.

“I resent it because you are helpless, and you know that to fight them is going to take money,” Finch, 89, said on Tuesday at her home near Bailey. “The first time it was 17 (acres). The second time it was seven and the last time it was 28. The first time I went to court. I think (it was) $400 an acre. We went to court, but we lost. So the second time I decided not to go to court and to go ahead and negotiate with them. I don’t remember what it was, but it was peanuts, just nothing, but I just didn’t want to go through that court process again. But the third time, I decided I’m going to be a bull and we did. They offered us nothing.”

Now, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline wants to use a 100-foot-wide corridor to sink a 36-inch natural gas pipeline across Finch’s property near Buckhorn Crossroads.

“It’s not been a fight every time,” said Finch’s daughter, Jane Flowers Finch of Raleigh. “She’s fought the first time and settled all the rest.”

This time, the Finches will be contesting Dominion and Duke Energy’s plan to route a high-pressure transmission pipeline through property that might otherwise have become a subdivision or a small shopping center.

“We’re fighting it,” said Jane Flowers Finch, who is a Raleigh attorney. “We’ve been fighting it from the get-go.”

According to Aaron Ruby, a spokesman for Dominion, Finch is one of about 60 property owners in Wilson across whose land the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will need to be placed.

Tim Bissette, a Wilson County landowner, said recently that the ACP has plans to put roughly 2,300 feet of pipe across a portion of his family farm and he is resisting it.

“The pipeline runs through the entire length of my grandfather’s farm,” Bissette said. “We’ll see how it turns out but it’s just hard, you know. This is where I have lived for 58 years and to have people to come in and say, ‘Guess what, we’re going to do this to your land.’ It kind of hurts, so, I don’t know.”

“I’m not negotiating a deal,” Bissette said. “I have refused to negotiate a deal. When they tell me I have to, that’s when I’m going to negotiate. I’m not going to negotiate with them at all at this time.”

Bissette is against eminent domain as a means of condemning property for any circumstances.

“Not by any means,” Bissette said. “I’m against eminent domain anyway for government or private industry, either way.”

“Even the way the people are being treated with the offers for compensation, I really don’t think is a fair situation for the landowners either. It’s a one-time payment proposition,” Bissette said. “Duke Energy is going to reap profits from this forever and we are going to get paid once, and they are going to be on our land forever. I think there are a lot of concerns about that too, and how the costs are figured.”

Bissette figures that the court will ultimately decide the compensation.

“It’s not a big moneymaker for anybody. It’s nothing like that,” said Bissette. “If Duke Energy was going to send a check every month, you might go, ‘Hey, this is different,’ you know, but this is a one-time compensation and then by the time you add paying income tax on top of that on the money that you earn, it’s not a moneymaker by any means.”

Marvin Winstead, of Nash County, has a farm that has been in the family for several generations, seven miles south of Nashville. The property is rectangular in dimension.

“There proposed route would be to come in on the northeast corner and diagonally bisect the property,” Winstead said. “It would exit less than 275 feet from the side of my house.”

Roughly 3,000 feet of pipeline would be located across his property near Taylor’s Crossroads.

“This is an unnecessary project. It’s not needed despite what the companies say. It’s only for their benefit. They are threatening eminent domain. This is an abuse of eminent domain. This is eminent domain for the purpose of private, corporate shareholder profits. It is not truly for the public good. They are distorting the words eminent domain when they say that,” said Winstead. “To me, eminent domain is when a government agency, a state government, a county government, municipal government or federal government forces a person to give of property and compensates them for the sake of public good, to build a road, to build a school, to build a hospital or some county or municipal building or something where the public at large benefits from it. These companies are private shareholder companies. This is to make money for Duke Energy, to make money for Dominion Resources.”

Winstead said he is getting letters with return addresses in Virginia and West Virginia.

“I am being threatened (with) eminent domain by a private shareholder corporation from another state, not my county government or my state government or whatever.”

Winstead, who describes himself as being concerned for the environment, said he has been against the project from the beginning.

“It’s all the more insulting that they want to build a pipeline through my property and transport fracked gas,” Winstead said. “If there is an explosion, the typical crater is 1,100 feet wide. If that were to happen, my house is gone. If I happen to be home, I am too.”

Jane Flowers Finch said she is frustrated that Doyle Land Services, an agent of Dominion, has made repeated attempts to negotiate a deal with her elderly mother.

“They knew that I’m an attorney and they knew that I was representing my mother. Despite that, those Doyle Land Services people have contacted my mother at least a half a dozen times,” she said.

The company would keep calling her about settling, Finch said. At one point, representatives actually sent Pearl Finch settlement papers to sign.

“I always tell them to deal with my daughter. They send me registered mail and I have to sign for it,” said Pearl Finch. “They called me a lot. They were pushy and I was rebellious.”

“She mailed my mother the packet with a settlement for $4,700 and she kept calling her to get her to sign and send the papers back,” Jane Finch said. “They would say things like, ‘We have the right of eminent domain’ or ‘You know that it’s going to be approved.’ Well, in my mind, if they tell the landowner that it’s going to be approved, that’s a legal opinion. That’s the unauthorized practice of law.”

Another thing that is in Pearl Finch’s settlement package, which is alarming to Finch, is a form from the North Carolina Board of Realtors allowing dual representation.

If owners are going to sell their house and they list it with a real estate agent and then that listing agent brings the person a buyer and he’s representing both seller and the buyer, they have to have the seller sign a form allowing dual representation.

“So these land agents, when they settle with the landowner, they are representing Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the landowner, if those landowners do not have a lawyer,” Jane Finch said. “I think this is a major consumer matter for these landowners because of this dual representation by this Doyle Land Services representing Atlantic Coast Pipeline making statements that are giving legal opinions, making statements that are untruthful and especially in light of the misleading and untruthful things that the developers of the pipeline have said at meetings, big meetings and small meetings.”

According to a North Carolina Board of Realtors broker-in-charge annual review course, “dual agency has long been frowned upon by the law” and “it may be difficult for a dual agent to advance the interests of both the buyer and seller.”

Finch said property owners should understand that the threat of eminent domain cannot be used to compel them to come to the table for a settlement with the pipeline developer.

“A lot of times in eminent domain, they can go ahead and build the pipeline on our property and we might not have settled with them, and they will sue us in court. Once the (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) certificate goes through, they then have the right of eminent domain,” Finch said. “They do not have it right now. So there is no law that requires us to settle right now. Nothing. There is no way they can compel us to settle. Any settlement right now is totally voluntary. Once the certificate is issued by FERC, they then can go on and take the property and sue the landowner and under the North Carolina statute, they must pay compensation the landowner for the highest and best use of that property.”

There is a bill in the legislature to amend the North Carolina Constitution to prohibit condemnation of property except for public use.

House Bill 3 would also give property owners the right to a jury trial in all condemnation cases. Nothing would immediately change if the bill passes. The bill would put a referendum on the ballot and the voters would decide. If passed, the bill would have no effect on the current plan to condemn vast swaths of property to construct the ACP.

Rep. Susan Martin, R-Wilson, signed on as a co-sponsor of HB3 and Sen. Rick Horner, R-Wilson, is a co-sponsor of an identical bill filed in the Senate.

dwilson@wilsontimes.com | 265-7818