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Franklin County judge dismisses trespass charges against pipeline surveyors

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Franklin County resident Glenn Frith grimaced Wednesday morning after a General District Court judge dismissed misdemeanor trespass charges against two members of a survey crew working in July for Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC.

“We just don’t have any property rights anymore,” Frith said after the trial. “Money from somewhere has bought off our property rights.”

Frith said he was disappointed but not surprised by Judge Robert Adams’ decision to dismiss the trespass charges, which stemmed from a confrontation Frith had July 30 with surveyors on his property west of Boones Mill. Frith said Virginia law seems to be on the side of the private company that wants to build and bury a 42-inch-diameter natural gas transmission pipeline through the region.

The controversial law, 56-49.01, allows a natural gas company or its contractors to survey private property even if the owner has denied access. That’s true as long as the company has provided notification required by the law.

To date, the law has survived challenges in federal court and in at least one county’s circuit court. And Adams cited the law’s provisions when dismissing the trespass charges against Nicholas Constantine, 46, of Burlington, New Jersey, and Jeremy Dean, 33, of Glenville, West Virginia.

Both men testified Wednesday that they were working for Mountain Valley Pipeline on July 30 when they walked onto Frith’s land with the intention of surveying it for a possible route for the high-pressure pipeline.

Earlier, Kevin Wagner, a regional land director for Mountain Valley, testified that the company had followed the notification requirements specified by 56-49.01 before launching survey work on Frith’s property.

But Frith has said he thought that a certified letter he’d sent Mountain Valley denying access to his property, along with “No trespassing” signs specifically targeted to pipeline crews, would keep surveyors off his land.

He said later that a lack of clarity about the state law could lead to tragic consequences if Franklin County property owners reacted angrily to survey crews working where they weren’t wanted.

Lawyer Ward Armstrong, a former member of the House of Delegates, was the attorney for Constantine and Dean in court Wednesday. In 2004, when Armstrong, a Democrat, represented Henry County, he voted for 56-49.01.

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On Wednesday, he said the law and others like it allow necessary survey work to occur when electric utilities or natural gas companies are studying possible routes for transmission power lines or pipelines. He said society has to decide whether it wants to support utility infrastructure projects that appear to provide a public benefit.

He acknowledged that there is controversy about whether the Mountain Valley project, which would transport natural gas from West Virginia to another transmission pipeline in Pittsylvania County, provides a public benefit to any of the communities through which it might travel.

Regardless, he said, opponents to the law granting survey access or to the pipeline project itself should fight their battles with civil lawsuits and not with criminal charges.

He said Constantine and Dean were simply doing their job, “just trying to put food on the table.” He said both men slept little on the eve of Wednesday’s trial.

Mountain Valley submitted an application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last month, seeking the commission’s blessing for the 301-mile, $3.5 billion pipeline project — an endeavor that has garnered support and stirred opposition.

Armstrong referenced the latter when addressing the court Wednesday.

“I know that this case generates a lot of emotion,” he said.

Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for Mountain Valley, said she is not aware of any other trespass charges pending against surveyors along the pipeline’s route.

In July, two men working for a Mountain Valley subcontractor pleaded no contest to misdemeanor trespass charges in Craig County after using a posted private road to gain access to the Jefferson National Forest.

Cox said Wednesday that Mountain Valley has completed surveying for nearly 80 percent of the proposed pipeline route.

“Some surveying activities can continue while others are seasonal,” Cox said, noting that some surveying will continue through the winter.

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