Remaining Refusals

Steve and Anne Bernard are artists living and working in Franklin County. Earlier this month, we sat down in their studio to discuss the pipeline surveying taking place in Franklin, surrounded by proof of their artistic passions: years of pastels and paintings hanging, propped against the walls, and in various states of progress on easels in their studio not far from 220. Steve, raised in Franklin County, and Anne, hailing from upstate New York, both studied art and spent time in New York before returning to Franklin, to the house where they have now lived for 35 years.

Cahas Mountain, one mountain of several in the area in the path of the MVP route and the quintessential landmark in Franklin, can be seen from their studio, not far in the distance.

They received their initial notification letter, like many others, in the fall of 2014.
They received letters of intent to survey their land, like many others, soon after.

“It’s just a shock because we’ve lived here in this idyllic location for so long,” Anne says. “We really haven’t had to worry about anything coming through here. We love it so much. We can make our art here in peace.”

After sending in certified letters denying access, they received another letter from Mountain Valley that began, “We intend to enter your property,” Steve called the Franklin County sheriff, asking him to call the signed MVP representative as another form of notification of denied access.

“I felt that that word ‘intend’ was threatening. I felt threatened, which I think is part of their process,” Steve said. They have since have kept watchful eye, documenting any sight of or interaction with surveyors, fearing surveying could take place from the road or from adjoining properties.

Stephen and Anne Bernard in their Franklin County studio. August 2015. Photo by Will Solis.

Steve and Anne Bernard discuss the pipeline in their Franklin County studio. August 2015. Photo by Will Solis.

As in several stories shared before, theirs is not uncommon. In Bent Mountain and in Franklin County alike, attempted survey has led to police dispatch and, in some cases, to charges of trespass. On the other hand, a judge in Montgomery County ruled against a case suing MVP for surveying without permission in support of the Virginia statute allowing natural gas companies to enter private property for surveying if the company has followed the statute’s notification requirements, even if the landowner has denied access.

This scenario is repeated and rife with opportunity for division, a charged argument for property rights sometimes pitting neighbors who oppose the line against neighbors who allow surveying.

“Different people will have different approaches,” Steve says. “The approach I take is, don’t do anything to help them. Take them to court to make me give access to our land. Others are taking the approach that they don’t want to deal with it.”

The art studio is located toward the edge of the property line, overlooking a tranquil meadow belonging to their neighbor, a farmer, who has granted access for surveying.

“I don’t want any animosity toward him,” Steve says. “He has his life and I don’t know what’s going on with him in having to deal with this. It might be something I don’t know anything about.”

He continued, “I won’t let Mountain Valley split a relationship with my neighbor. I refuse to have it that way.”

Does this mean that the Bernards are going to let the rest of the process continue without a fight? They say no. And this seems to be the current mindset of many residents in the proposed path.

Steve adds, “One silver lining of all of this, if there is one, has been getting to know the people in this community.”

While we were talking, a horn honked from the driveway. It was the mail delivery bringing a certified letter. The letter was from Mountain Valley Pipeline, and it was the same as their first and second letters, with one difference: the use of “we propose” in place of “we intend.”

“I take it one day at a time,” he says when asked if he feel any optimism about the prospects.

***

The same sentiment is echoed by Blair Boone. The next day, we met with Blair, his 90 year old mother, Mavis, and his sister, Sheila. The siblings drove home to Franklin that week, Blair from New York and Sheila from Newport News, to help Mavis monitor the farm and deny access to surveyors who were anticipated to show up that week.

Mavis is concise, “We get discouraged. I have no peace about it. But I’m not going down without a fight.”

The Boones’ farm has been in the family since 1946. Blair shows us the fields that are home to soybean and corn crops (some of the bottom land is leased to other farmers), a hidden spring, and an old, soaring hay barn.  Sheila describes the biodiversity of the area, listing animals seen like fox, quail, whippoorwills, and indigo buntings. Close to 100 acres stretch down to the banks of the Blackwater River, whose u-bend encircles the property just below the water supply for Rocky Mount.

“This is industrializing rural property, and it’s an irreversible process,” says Blair regarding the pipeline, which is currently drafted to cross the land multiple times. “We’re talking about cutting out a lot of the agricultural value of this place. The corn land, the soybean land, and two springs are right in its path.”

When an easement is negotiated, there are certain activities that are no longer permitted within it (for the MVP, the permanent easement is said to be 75 feet). Should the project be approved, prohibited activities would include driving heavy equipment and planting, a limitation of land use for many in the agricultural community.

As a resident of Buffalo, New York, Blair is familiar with natural gas pipelines, albeit smaller in size, (“they run all over,” he says) and it was these smaller lines he thought of when he first learned of the pipeline plans. It was the size and scope of the MVP– 42 inches in diameter– that caught his attention, and ultimately changed his mind.

“I thought this would be a local distribution line. Even as a through- line I thought, how bad could it be, we can work with them. We’ve discovered that you can’t work with them because they don’t deal in good faith.”

So far, surveyors have not made their way onto the Boones’ land. But confusion regarding dates of survey and potential for trespass, along with previous interactions with survey representatives, has left the family without trust. Several residents in Franklin found surveyors arriving days before the dates listed in the letters of intent they received. Some have denied access in person, only to have to deny again when the survey crew arrives at a later time.

Mavis says, “We don’t know when to expect them to come, because you can’t always depend on what they say. We have to be on guard at all times.”

While MVP does not have claim to the use of eminent domain until their project is approved by FERC, many, like the Boones and the Bernards, are gearing up for legal battle ahead as the summer winds down.

“If it does get to the point where it’s approved, I’m not going to be negotiating this by myself,” Blair says.

“We don’t want to leave a stone unturned,” Sheila adds. “If there’s anything we can do, we’re working ourselves to death on it. We’ve got to do it while we can, because once it’s too late, it’s too late.”

Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC is scheduled to submit its formal project application to FERC in October 2015. 

Correction and clarification, September 10, 2015:

This article describes the Boone farm as located below the water supply for the town of Rocky Mount. Rather, the route of the pipeline crosses the Blackwater River above the water supply.
The article also lists quail and whippoorwill as birds seen on the Boone property. The Boones met with the Virginia Department of Inland Game and Fisheries in 2014 to discuss efforts to restore these birds’ populations as they had once been abundant on the property.

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