Penn Township landowners bound by old right-of-way agreements
Ron Johnson doesn't usually see a lot of traffic pass by his Penn Township home.
Perched on a hilltop off Ridge Road that provides a scenic overlook to Route 993 and a neighboring farm, the home Johnson bought in 1998 sits off a one-lane gravel path on a 1.5-acre property that still is served by well water.
Only 10 families live on the subdivided lots of the former Anderson farm, but, Johnson said, Butternut Lane has been bustling this month with a parade of construction and contractor vehicles related to the replacement of a 61-year-old Peoples Natural Gas pipeline.
Johnson said he and his neighbors were surprised when construction crews came to clear rights-of-way of trees. Owners of the family farm downhill from Johnson hurried to harvest an oat crop that was in the way of the pipeline path.
Other than an undated letter sent to request his permission to access his property — which he refused to sign — Johnson said the first notice of the work was the sound of chain saws. The company's right-of-way is being expanded from 50 feet to 60 feet on his property, he said.
“The billion-dollar companies that make gobs of money have no respect for the people who supposedly own the top of the land,” said Johnson, 64, who is retired from a job at Verizon.
The Peoples' pipeline replacement is part of a routine upgrade to provide for the safety of the line, spokeswoman Erin O'Donnell said. Other lines, including some dating back to the World War I era, also are being replaced.
The company tries to inform affected property owners as far in advance as possible — at minimum, one week — through the construction crew, O'Donnell said.
“Often, that's done in person, and we try to answer as many questions as possible,” she said.
For property owners who inherited a right-of-way agreement negotiated by a previous title holder, there's little recourse for standing in a company's way without an attorney's help, specialists say.
It has been a busy summer for utility companies in western Pennsylvania — and a hectic time for property owners who are learning that pipeline projects are coming through their land.
Peoples is in the midst of replacing a bare steel pipeline, originally installed in 1952, that runs from Murrysville to Altoona. The replacement pipe will have electronic-cathode protection that helps to control corrosion, O'Donnell said.
EQT, which also has a right-of-way on Johnson's property, sent notices to property owners in the region that a contractor would use a helicopter to spray herbicide for a vegetation-management program between Aug. 1 and Oct. 15. Landowners, like Johnson did, can contact EQT to request that no spraying be done, said Linda Robertson, manager of EQT's media relations.
Dominion Transmission — a third company with a right-of-way on Johnson's property — mailed notice of its intent to conduct environmental studies and other surveys in preparation to replace sections of a pipeline in 2014.
And Sunoco Logistics, which is planning to construct a pipeline to transport ethane and propane beside a Dominion line, is acquiring rights-of-way, including one by eminent domain in Penn Township through a court order.
Sunoco is trying to schedule public meetings about the project in Westmoreland, Allegheny and Washington counties in late September or early October, said Chris Bova, deputy director of the Westmoreland County Department of Planning and Development.
In the cases of existing pipelines, the projects often are occurring through rights-of-way agreements that were negotiated long before the current landowners closed on the properties, said a lawyer who specializes in oil and gas negotiations.
Unlike agreements today, in which attorneys try to negotiate aspects such as where and how deep a pipeline may be placed, many decades-old pacts are brief, vague about the size of the right-of-way and provide only nominal compensation, said Joe Charlton, a lawyer based in Sarver, Butler County.
Some of the agreements don't prohibit a company from coming back to replace a line — and don't specify that the property owner is entitled to any payment if a company does so.
Dave Messersmith, an educator for Penn State Extension, said almost all of the pipeline activity these days is related to the development of the shale-gas industry.
Extension agents have held forums across the state — including one last month in Murrysville — to explain matters such as the negotiation of a right-of-way. They recommend that landowners who are in that position with a gas company consult with an attorney.
“It is a contract that moves with the property, so it is something that could have significant financial and legal implications,” said Messersmith, who is based in Wayne County.
In the path
Johnson's neighbor, Jim Barkley, built three homes — including Johnson's — since moving in 1968 to the old farm plan. He's more resigned to the pipeline activity than Johnson is.
“There isn't anything in the world I can do about it. They have more money than I do,” said Barkley, who has a piano-tuning business.
But Bob Lehman, who has lived on Ashbaugh Road for 35 years, said Peoples has been fair to him. Lehman said he tries to work with the company, which has a 90-foot right-of-way near his home.
The work in recent weeks led to the displacement of three apple trees.
“They've been really good. I just hope they stay that way,” Lehman said.
“They need their gas, and I need my home.”
Chris Foreman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8671, or firstname.lastname@example.org.