SavanahNow.com (Savanah Daily News)
Posted: June 13, 2015 – 9:56pm | Updated: June 14, 2015 – 1:37pm
By Mary Landers
Michael Maddox thought he wouldn’t have to deal with pipeline surveyors again after transportation officials rejected Kinder Morgan’s Palmetto Pipeline project last month.
He was wrong.
The surveyors came back to his small eco-development in Effingham County recently, undaunted by the Georgia Department of Transportation decision.
“A crew of surveyors is on my property this morning marking my property boundaries,” he emailed on June 2. “Looks like full steam ahead for Kinder Morgan.”
Maddox had given the company permission to survey in hopes of finding an alternate route that wouldn’t interfere with the development of Green Bridge Farm, his green subdivision in Guyton, where existing homes favor alternative energy such as geothermal and solar and where he grows 2 acres of fruits and vegetables.
He tried to negotiate with the company to shift the pipeline east and preserve the stand of slash pines and oaks that buffer his 10-lot subdivision — including five lots that he has yet to sell — from the existing utility corridor.
But those negotiations broke down.
Maddox said he could live with the 50-foot permanent easement required for the pipeline itself, but an additional 70 feet that may be needed for construction staging could effectively condemn the green subdivision.
As surveyed, the pipeline easement would run through a planned foundation for his next-door neighbor’s house. The owner has already drilled geothermal wells and a drinking water well, but now he’s uncertain whether he can build his house.
“I am hoping it all goes away, but in the meantime they are kind of getting into my pockets because my clientele don’t know what they can do with their property,” Maddox said.
In a written statement, Kinder Morgan spokeswoman Melissa Ruiz confirmed the company is still conducting surveys.
“We are continuing our discussions with stakeholders, including impacted landowners, because we believe this project is in the best interests of consumers in the state of Georgia and the Southeast region,” she wrote. “Our efforts toward achieving mutually beneficial agreements have not changed.”
Like Maddox, many landowners have given Kinder Morgan permission to survey. In fact, in an advertising blitz since the pipeline’s rejection, Kinder Morgan states “To date, over 80 percent of landowners impacted by the Palmetto Pipeline have agreed to have their property surveyed.”
The statistic, though unverifiable through publicly available information, indicates support for the project, according to Kinder Morgan.
The 360-mile pipe would branch off an existing pipeline in South Carolina and carry up to 7 million gallons of gasoline, diesel and ethanol through Georgia to Jacksonville. Widespread support hasn’t been evident at public meetings and hearings about the pipeline, though, where hundreds of residents have protested.
Many are rankled by the prospect of Kinder Morgan using eminent domain to acquire easements through some of the nearly 400 private properties it would cross in the state.
Anti-pipeline activists have been urging landowners to revoke the right to survey with a form letter available through the Push Back the Pipeline coalition. Interest has been keen, said Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus.
“Basically people call the office constantly,” she said. “We’ve had three to four landowners every day.”
A companion post titled “5 Reasons to Not Sign the Palmetto Pipeline Survey Form” outlines how the company’s generic survey form “strips away your property rights.” The form seeks access to the entire property at any time, not only for Kinder Morgan employees, but also for its “successors and assigns, affiliates, employees and contractors.”
“We consider it one of the more abusive forms we’ve ever reviewed,” said attorney Don Evans of Evans & Rhodes in Cartersville.
Evans, who wrote the tips, has made a specialty of representing landowners in eminent domain cases. He is representing five landowners along the route of the Palmetto Pipeline.
“Petroleum companies only have a right to take a look. They don’t have a right to dig holes or go beneath the ground, though they could drive survey stakes,” he said. “These guys, right out of the gate, they were intimidating landowners to give (the company) rights they’re not entitled to under the law.”
Evans urges landowners to consult an attorney before granting survey permission. He tells his clients to demand access to all the information the company learns about their property and to audio record every verbal interaction with land agents.
“They’re accumulating a lot of information,” Evans said. “They will keep it secret because they want to know more about your land than you do in the event you go to court. In exchange for granting survey rights the company agrees that everything they learn about the property they share with the landowner. That’s a great leg up in the event you do need to go to court.”
Among those who have revoked permission is Chatham County.
An open records request by the Savannah Morning News revealed that Assistant County Manager Michael Kaigler gave the company verbal permission to survey the county’s 641-acre Blue Sky Preserve on the Ogeechee River in early March, with no special conditions noted. On April 8, Assistant County Engineer Suzanne Cooler revoked that permission in a sharply worded letter.
“The referenced parcel is a wetland mitigation bank,” she wrote. “Many trees were recently planted on the parcel. Such trees may appear as ‘brush’ to your survey crew and may be damaged during the survey.”
She concluded by threatening prosecution for trespass if any work is conducted without express, written permission.
Debo and David Boddiford never gave permission for their Screven County land to be surveyed and to their knowledge it hasn’t been, though much of it is remote swamps along the Savannah River. They did meet with pipeline representatives early on.
“My main thing with them is information,” Debo Boddiford said. “You can’t get any information. Our family met with them Feb. 18. They acted like they were our very best friends. They gave us their emails.”
But her long list of questions went unanswered.
“They wouldn’t — or couldn’t — answer almost all of them,” she said. “They said they would get back to me.”
Attorney Steve Caley of the nonprofit environmental law firm GreenLaw said the company can’t survey land like the Boddifords’ where they were denied permission.
“I would argue that once the (certificate of public need) petition is denied they have no right to survey,” he said. “It’s not a live application right now. Georgia case law is very clear. If the landowner does not give permission, they could risk breach of the peace by coming on the land.”
Kinder Morgan can continue to survey where it has permission. But like Evans, Caley said that right can be revoked.
“I think you have every right to rescind it,” he said.
Boddiford, whose land has been in her husband’s family since 1850, would like to see more people do just that. She’s been distributing copies of the survey revocation letter in an effort to negate what she sees as a public relations effort by Kinder Morgan.
“I don’t think that 80 percent is right,” she said. “My goal is let’s get that way down.”
Ruiz, the Kinder Morgan spokeswoman, indicated Friday that the appeal of the DOT decision would be filed this week.
“We have not filed an appeal at this time, but we do plan to do so in the 30-day window outlined in the statute,” she wrote. “The appeal would be filed at the Superior Court of Fulton County.”
Though announced the following day, the DOT decision was dated May 18, making June 17 the deadline.
Greenlaw’s Caley said his clients — including the Push back the Pipeline Coalition — would likely intervene in the appeal.
ON THE WEB
A sample revocation letter for landowners who want to rescind permission to survey their property is available at the Facebook page of Push Back the Pipeline.
To read more stories, view hearing transcripts and other related documents, as well as a map, go to savannahnow.com/palmettopipeline.