RICHMOND — The Atlantic Coast Pipeline has revised its requests to cross 10 properties protected by state conservation easements in western Virginia, setting up a potentially precedent-setting decision by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation early next month.
The revised applications would reduce the direct impact on lands under conservation easement by 13 acres under a waiver provision. It allows the foundation to accept easements on land of greater value in exchange for allowing encroachments on existing easements granted by landowners to protect properties with high scenic and ecological value.
Brett Glymph, executive director of the foundation, said the requirements of the conversion process "ensure that the public's interest in our easements remains fully protected." But he said it would be up to the organization's board of directors to decide at its meeting on Feb. 9 whether the pipeline's proposals "satisfy the requirements of the law."
The pipeline company, led by Richmond-based Dominion Resources, contends that the new proposals are "an appropriate and fair offer to offset the limited impact of the crossings," spokesman Aaron Ruby said.
But opponents of the pipeline said the proposed conversion of the easements would violate state law and potentially cripple the program for protecting highly scenic, environmentally valuable properties.
"The risk here for the easement program is significant," warned Greg Buppert, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville. "If the VOF says yes, they undermine the critical trust between the foundation and the owner of the easement."
Under the proposals, the pipeline would permanently affect 55 acres of the 4,500 acres under easement on the 10 properties in Bath, Highland, Augusta and Nelson counties, rather than the 68 acres that would have been affected under the original applications filed last May, Ruby said. In return, the company has offered to place easements on an 1,100-acre farm in Highland and 85 acres along the Rockfish River in Nelson.
The proposal represents a 21-to-1 swap, Ruby said. "We believe it's an even more generous offer."
But opponents called the proposed changes "insignificant" compared with the ecological damage that the pipeline would cause to forests, streams, and wildlife.
"We're talking about fragmenting and damaging high-integrity forests," said Rick Webb, coordinator of the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition and a retired environmental scientist at the University of Virginia.
The foundation staff posted the revised applications on its web site late Thursday afternoon. It also posted a statement that outlined proposed changes that would reduce the permanent right-of-way for the pipeline across the properties from 75 to 50 feet wide, as well as prohibit above-ground structures and any additional pipeline crossings in the future, while requiring the company to restore the affected land with native grasses and habitat for pollination.
"We're not making recommendations," spokesman Jason McGarvey said in an interview Thursday. "We're just making our findings to the board and then they have to make their determination."
The debate is overshadowed by the potential pre-emption of the state easement law by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which expects to decide by September whether to grant a certificate of public need for the $5.1 billion, 600-mile pipeline and allow its developer to use eminent domain to condemn property in its proposed path.
FERC issued a draft environmental impact statement at the end of last month that rejected a once-proposed route variation that would have crossed a protective easement on Elk Hill Farm in Nelson, which the company has said it does not propose to cross.
Buppert said the board should reject the proposed applications because they would violate Section 1074 of the Open Space Land Act. It allows for easement conversions or diversions only if they meet a series of conditions, including showing that the conversions are "essential to the orderly development and growth of the locality" and in accordance with local comprehensive plans.
"There's simply no way for Dominion to argue that this is essential to those localities," he said.