Atlantic Sunrise

Work on the Transco Pipe Line in Lycoming County.

THE ISSUE

A final decision by the federal government on whether to allow construction of the Atlantic Sunrise gas pipeline to move forward is expected by mid-February. An estimated 32 landowners along the 36.5-mile route in Lancaster County face the prospect of having their land seized through eminent domain. As LNP reported, based on a review of county court filings, the number of holdouts is well above what pipeline builder Williams usually faces. On Dec. 30, 2016, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved an environmental impact study that found the pipeline would create “less than significant levels” of impact on the environment, taking into account proposed mitigation measures.

Lancaster Farmland Trust is suing a farmer. The pipeline builder is suing landowners. Everyone involved is awaiting the federal government’s decision.

The Atlantic Sunrise gas pipeline is a confusing, controversial mess. And while you can get dizzy in the labyrinth of issues surrounding this project, one issue seems very straightforward: No landowner should be forced to surrender his land to make way for this pipeline, a commercial project.

“This is our home. We will never grant an easement as long as we live at our home,” Tracy and Eric Landis told LNP. The Landises own 80 acres off Main Street in Conestoga. “They want to steal our family’s backyard, ruin our wildlife refuges and forage areas, and destroy our family’s dreams by turning our home into a construction zone and permanently devalue our property.”

The Landises said landowners should have a choice whether or not to sell their land to a builder. We agree.

There are 269 tracts of land in Lancaster County on the list to sign right-of-way agreements for the pipeline, construction zones and access roads. According to a Sunday LNP report, a review of easement agreements filed at the Lancaster County Courthouse shows 32 properties without signed agreements.

For those who did sign, that’s their right. But it appears those who didn’t sign might not have a choice, as all face the prospect of fighting this battle — and likely losing — in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.

The pipeline builder, Williams, will ask for immediate possession of the land. And if eminent domain is invoked, landowners will likely wind up getting less money for their properties than Williams originally offered.

We have opposed this project from the beginning. It would cut through 31 preserved farms, and the $250 million collected in taxes and donations to preserve these farms should not be used to subsidize Williams’ construction costs. While natural gas is important in Pennsylvania, we favor the use of existing rights of way for construction.

These reasons alone, in our view, are sound enough for opposing this project. But the unseemly prospect of seizing private land from unwilling property owners ought to alarm both supporters and opponents of the pipeline.

“Thousands of us are preparing to do justice if you and the government refuse to,” Malinda Harnish Clatterbuck, a Martic Township resident, wrote to FERC. Clatterbuck has been a leader in the fight against the pipeline here.

“We are training. We are gaining strength in resolve and in numbers, and we believe doing the right thing is more important than standing by and watching FERC permit the industry to destroy our livelihoods, our homes, our land, our earth, even if the industry’s actions have been deemed legal.”

If opponents do take some sort of action — and Clatterbuck’s letter sounds a rather ominous note — we would hope that it would be peaceful and lawful. This project has already been marred by enough chaos, including a public meeting in June that ended with police being called.

FERC still has a chance to do the right thing and pull the plug. But given the results of the recent environmental impact study, that would require a full 180 pivot, which seems unlikely. Or, FERC could take another look at alternative routes that would take the pipeline out of Lancaster County. Also unlikely.

Either way, after a two-year, contentious battle, it appears we’ll know one way or the other within a month.

Of the possible outcomes after two years of ugliness, seizing land through eminent domain seems like the ugliest of all.

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