I recently attended a scoping meeting in Live Oak called by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The subject was the 465 mile natural gas pipeline from eastern Alabama to central Florida which will run through a timber tract in Hamilton County owned by my family. The FERC was seeking public comment on the proposed pipeline. The people who spoke threw around the subject of eminent domain like it was a dirty word. So what is this supposedly ‘nasty’ word?
Eminent domain means land that is taken for public use. It is covered at the end of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution with this protection: “nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.”
What kind of public use applies in the case of eminent domain? For more than two centuries, the law was narrowly defined as public use for transportation infrastructure, e.g. roads, power lines, pipelines, etc. A few years ago, the Supreme Court’s Kelo decision said that eminent domain extended to land condemned for private economic development. I did not agree with that decision and wouldn’t be surprised to see it readdressed sometime in the future.
Farmers and foresters have long lived with eminent domain cases. They own and farm a lot of land that is sparsely populated. They understand that the people in highly populated areas require infrastructure to support urban areas. That infrastructure needs to traverse rural farms and forests (where there is the least impact) in order to get to places where the people require transportation and energy. It would be inappropriate and selfish to try to block this needed infrastructure.
Instead, we calculate the loss in economic value, negotiate with the builders, and reach a settlement for the right-of-way. Once the project is built, we work around or over the right-of-way as best we can. Those of us who engage in farming or forestry are very familiar with this process and deal with it frequently. We don’t fight it; rather we try to work it to our advantage and move on.
Back to the FERC scoping meeting, there were a lot of organized protesters to this project who spoke to the feds. Most of them were from the Santa Fe and Itchetucknee River area and it seemed, none of them were involved in either farming or forestry. They raised every issue they could, including many which were ancillary to the project, such as fracking and alternate energy. From my perspective, there was a lot of fear-mongering in their comments.
The end user of this natural gas is our state’s largest energy producer, Florida Power and Light (FP&L). They have made a strategic decision to convert their thermal generators to natural gas, probably because of environmental restrictions and price considerations. I’m not in any position to quarrel with their decision making process since I’m neither a stockholder nor customer. I do know they are a very thoughtful and reliable company and I’m confident in their decision. My job is to accommodate them when the time is right and protect the interests of my family business. If and when the pipeline is constructed, we’ll work within the restrictions of the easement and return to normal business.
I do have experience with a natural gas pipeline, as well as overhead power lines and road expansions. It does cause us to amend our operations … but we can deal with that. I do not find these easements to be dangerous. In the unlikely case of an accident, we’ll go back to court and settle our damages. The buried pipeline constructed in 1995 crosses two creeks and several other wetlands without any apparent damage. The critters seem to have adjusted to the intrusion – turkey, deer, tortoises, ducks and hogs abound.
I’m really somewhat agnostic about the pipeline. If the decision is not to build, then it is business as usual. If it is approved which I expect, then we’ll settle. During the construction period, there will be some interference but I expect it to go fairly quickly. Once the construction is complete, I would expect little interference. In the process, we’ll lose several rows of trees and there is cost to that, present and future. The builders will replant the 50 foot easement in grass and that’s what we’ll live with.
I’m certain that there will be some buildings and home sites affected by the pipeline corridor and that is certainly more problematic than the challenges we face. I would advise those folks to get a good lawyer familiar with our area who is expert in eminent domain law.