Above: An excerpt from a letter sent to to landowners along the route of the Constitution Pipeline on Dec. 3. Read the full letter at the bottom of this story or by clicking here.
The day after receiving federal approval, the Constitution Pipeline sent letters threatening to use eminent domain authority against dozens of landowners who are reluctant to allow the 124-mile natural gas pipeline across their land.
The pipeline, which has been in the works for two and a half years, will run from Pennsylvania through New York's Delaware, Schoharie, Broome and Chenango counties. It received conditional approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Tuesday, Dec. 2.
On Wednesday, Dec. 3, the pipeline’s law firm, Saul Ewing, began playing hardball with landowners who have not accepted the pipeline’s offer of compensation in exchange for pipeline access.
In a form letter, Saul Ewing gave the landowners until Thursday, Dec. 11 to accept the pipeline’s offer. If the landowner refuses, the letter states, the pipeline will initiate eminent domain proceedings in court. The letter also informs landowners that pipeline personnel may enter onto their land to conduct surveys.
“This is a normal part of the process to make landowners aware of where we’re at and what our rights are and what the next steps are,” said Chris Stockton, a spokesman for the Constitution Pipeline. “It’s not unusual."
Stockton said that to his knowledge, the Constitution Pipeline has not yet filed any eminent domain actions against landowners along the route.
Lawyers with the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic, which is representing the anti-pipeline group Stop the Pipeline, said that the letters were “threatening” and an attempt to “bully landowners.”
According to the Albany Times Union, the clinic has filed a complaint about the pipeline’s letter with the New York Attorney General’s office.
Elizabeth Witmer, the lawyer at Saul Ewing who sent the letter to landowners on behalf of the pipeline, did not return several calls for comment. Stockton, the Constitution Pipeline spokesman, said that she would not be speaking to the media.
Dozens of landowners received letters
The Constitution Pipeline will not reveal how many landowners along the proposed 124-mile route of the pipeline received the letters.
"I can’t tell you exactly how many letters were sent,” Stockton said. “But we have reached agreements with the vast majority of landowners; between two-thirds and 75 percent.”
That number of agreements is up since last week, when Stockton told the Watershed Post that the pipeline had reached agreements with “over 50 percent” of landowners along the pipeline route.
"That’s normal for a project at this phase,” Stockton said.
Stockton also would not say how many landowners who had received the letters had subsequently made agreements with the pipeline.
"I know for a fact that dozens of people got these letters, and I presume that hundreds of people got these letters,” said Anne Marie Garti, one of the lawyers at the Pace Environmental Law Clinic who is representing Stop the Pipeline. Dozens of landowners who received letters have contacted her personally, she said.
About 60 percent of landowners along the pipeline route in Delaware and Otsego counties have not signed easement agreements with the pipeline, Garti said.
Constitution’s letter informed landowners that, whether they like it or not, Constitution Pipeline representatives “may enter upon [the landowner's] Property for the purpose of making surveys, test pits and borings, or other investigations” within 10 days of Dec 3.
But Garti said that because no eminent domain proceedings have been filed, Constitution Pipeline personnel cannot enter onto any landowner’s land without the landowner’s permission.
“A landowner has a right to exclude everybody from their property until a court orders otherwise,” Garti said. "This is not court order. For eminent domain proceedings to begin, [a landowner must] be personally served a notice of the complaint. By a person--not by UPS, FeEx, or a mailman."
"We’re not going to trespass on anybody’s property if we don’t have the authority to do so,” Stockton said. Whether the pipeline has the legal authority to enter property before eminent domain actions are filed may have to be worked out in court, he said.