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Lawsuit challenges state code allowing gas companies to survey land without permission

Lawsuit challenges state code allowing gas companies to survey land without permission

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LYNCHBURG — Five Nelson County residents have filed a lawsuit against Dominion Transmission in an attempt to keep the 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline out of Nelson County.

The lawsuit, filed this week in federal court in Charlottesville, asked the court to declare unconstitutional a Virginia statute relevant to the pipeline proposal.

“We do not see it having an impact,” Dominion spokesman Frank Mack said. “We are following Virginia law and will continue to do so. [I] would not speculate beyond that as to what a court might do.”

Virginia State Code 56-49.01 allows natural gas companies the right to enter private property “without the written permission of its owner if the natural gas company has requested the owner’s permission to inspect the property” and the company has given the owner advance notice.

Nelson County officials said Dominion Transmission will begin surveying effective immediately, but only on properties whose owners have given permission to do so.

Dominion has said it will not survey anyone’s land who has denied permission but the company will continue to work with the landowner until an agreement is reached, or a court order has been obtained affirming Dominion’s legal right to survey.

The Virginia statute “deprives the Plaintiffs’ of their fundamental property right without due process and violates the Fourth Amendment,” the complaint reads. It requests the court to declare the code as “void and unenforceable.”

Attorney Neal Walters, who represents the plaintiffs, said the suit raises new issues from the injunction filed by six plaintiffs in July.

“The prior state court cases assumed the underlying statute was valid and simply challenged Dominion’s compliance with the statute,” he said. “The new case in federal court challenges the constitutionality of the statute itself.”

The injunction suit filed against Dominion in July was an effort to keep Dominion surveyors off the property of affected landowners.

That suit was resolved when Dominion agreed to postpone surveying until a court order was in place.

One of the plaintiffs in the new federal suit, Charlotte Rea, said she realized the statute at issue was not as “rock solid” as Dominion would have landowners to believe.

“After becoming more familiar with property rights guaranteed by the Constitution, many landowners began to ask: ‘Is this law even constitutional?’ Five of us decided to ask the court to make that determination. Now we and hundreds of other landowners along the pipeline path wait for the expected good news,” she said.

Walters said Dominion has 21 days to respond, and then a pre-trial conference will be set.

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