Home SELC files challenge to Atlantic Coast Pipeline Route

SELC files challenge to Atlantic Coast Pipeline Route


Dominion Virginia Power’s re-drawn route for a natural gas pipeline will pierce at least 10 properties that owners had placed into a special trust to prevent future development, jeopardizing confidence in Virginia’s conservation easement program and leaving easement donors feeling betrayed.

“You think, my goodness, what does a conservation easement mean?” said Roberta “Robbie” Koontz who, with her husband Bob, put 1,200 acres into the state’s conservation easement program. “We’ve worked all our lives. We’ve been good, loyal citizens and taxpayers. We think, how can this be happening to us?”

Today, SELC attorneys filed a motion with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to reject Dominion’s planned route for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

The pipeline is proposed to stretch 600 miles from West Virginia, through Virginia, and into North Carolina, at a cost of $5 billion.

SELC is representing the Shenandoah Valley Network, Highlanders for Responsible Development, Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“When the U.S. Forest Service rejected Dominion’s original route for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline earlier this year, Dominion wasn’t about to let go of a project that promises to be very lucrative for its shareholders,” said SELC senior attorney Greg Buppert. “Instead, they turned around and proposed an equally destructive route that would require an unprecedented diminishment of valuable conservation easement land.”

The challenge centers on the “conservation easement” program administered by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation. Landowners can place large rural parcels into the easement program to prevent future development.

That’s what Robbie and Bob Koontz did when they purchased a historic 1,200-acre farm and manor house, collectively known as “Wilderness Farm.” The brick home on their Bath County property dates to 1797 and traces its lineage to soldiers and generals who fought in the Revolutionary War, the couple said.

“This was something we wanted to give to the people of Virginia,” Bob Koontz said. “We wanted it to be looked after. That was our gift. We didn’t want it broken up into little parcels.”

Robbie Koontz said the pipeline would cut through some of their orchards and could damage several underground springs that feed the property’s creeks. She said a construction access road would be built across their driveway.

“This property survived the French and Indian War, the Civil War, world wars, all sorts of things,” she said. “And now to see it destroyed by Dominion is really unbelievable.”

When a protected property like this is used for development, the change in status is called a “conversion.” Since the conservation easement program was started in 1966, only 13 properties have been “converted.” All were for small projects, like for a school’s turning lane and a town’s water tank.

Dominion’s request to convert at least 10 protected properties is “unprecedented,” Buppert says.

He also says it doesn’t comply with state law.

Virginia law requires these conversions to be essential to the county or locality where the property is located and in accordance with that locality’s comprehensive plan. In this case, Buppert says, not only is the pipeline not essential, but it does not even benefit the counties of Bath, Highland, Augusta and Nelson. The pipeline’s natural gas would be destined for other areas, not the areas where the property is being converted.

“The conservation easements threatened by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline play such a vital role in this region,” said Kate Wofford, executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Network. “They protect intact forestland, water quality, scenic views, and rare cave habitat—and they help to preserve the unique rural character of this extraordinary place. Landowners who have voluntarily placed their property under conservation easements trust that the land they love will be protected in perpetuity.”

Wofford says landowners may stop putting their wilderness properties into conservation easements if this is what will become of them.

Numerous landowners have expressed precisely that concern to the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, and the Foundation shares that concern. Dominion is putting pressure on the Virginia Outdoors Foundation to approve its request, but so far the Foundation is holding firm and has expressed its opposition to the conversions to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The Koontzes thought the easement program would have prevented something like this.

“Going into it, we really felt very protected,” Robbie Koontz said. “Now, we feel completely vulnerable.”

Her husband says they plan to fight for their land, which includes a small family cemetery on a bluff, where they would like to be buried.

“Now I’m worried Dominion would just dig us up and throw us out,” he said.



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