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Judge rules for landowners in pipeline complaint

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A Nash County landowner whose property is in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s path said a federal judge’s ruling last Friday “is good news but won’t be the end of things.”

In a civil complaint, the pipeline developer alleged immediate access was needed to meet a tree-felling deadline in order to protect migratory birds.

Winstead and Halifax property owner Ronald Locke testified at hearings in a U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina courtroom in Elizabeth City before Judge Terrence Boyle on March 14. Boyle dismissed the pipeline developer’s complaint on Friday.

Winstead owns a 70-acre farm that could be divided in half by the proposed natural gas pipeline.

“I was very happy to receive the news that he had ruled in our favor and did not give them eminent domain. Of course, for those of us who are opposed to the pipeline, groups like Wilson No Pipeline, Nash Stop the Pipeline and so forth, it’s very good news for us, but it won’t be the end of things, I feel sure,” Winstead said. “It’s just a temporary pause in the progress of the ongoing battle between the companies that want the pipeline and the individuals like myself that don’t want it.”

Winstead said that he felt sure Atlantic Coast Pipeline developers will appeal that decision.

“They won’t just let it lie there,” Winstead said. “I think common sense would tell you that they are not just going to take no for an answer at this point in time.”

According to Aaron Ruby, a spokesman for Dominion Energy, Winstead’s and Locke’s cases were two of 15 that came before the court where the company plans to begin construction on the pipeline project in the spring.

“We settled out of court in three of the cases, and the court granted us access in 10,” Ruby said. “In just two cases — Mr. Winstead and Mr. Locke — the court instructed us to continue working toward an agreement.”

Ruby said it has never been Dominion Energy’s preference to use the courts.

“We would have preferred to reach mutual agreements with these landowners, as we’ve done with more than 80 percent of landowners along the route. We’ve made every attempt to do so. This was an absolute last resort that we took after exhausting every other option,” Ruby said. “The court’s decision granting access to these properties is an important step forward for the project and allows us to prepare for construction in the spring. For the other two cases, we’ll continue making every attempt to reach an agreement with these landowners.”

Winstead said he is a member of Nash Stop the Pipeline, which is a chapter of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.

“The league is assisting me with the financial cost of hiring an attorney and I am very appreciative to them for that,” Winstead said.

Therese Vick of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League was in attendance at the hearings for Winstead and Locke.

“I think it shows the importance for people not to give up and to show up in court, even it you don’t have a lawyer,” Vick said.

Winstead told the judge about how he had dealt with unlicensed surveyors who were on his property without permission and the exchanges he’s had with the pipeline developer.

“The things that they have told me, a short time later I would find out that they turned out to be a complete lie,” Winstead said.

Winstead testified that at one point, surveyors told him the pipeline had been rerouted off of his property.

“Seven months later, I got a package in the mail and it’s an easement offer,” Winstead said. “So why would I have gotten an easement offer if they had resurveyed and moved the pipeline?”

“That’s what I said in court. I was polite because I was in court,” Winstead said. “I said he told me a very bold lie that day. In a social setting I might use rougher words than that. I have labeled them the bear rug people. A bear rug lies all the time.”

Vick said Atlantic Coast Pipeline lawyers did not challenge Winstead’s testimony about unlicensed surveyors.

“This reflects the kind of story that we have heard over and over and over again from folks in the path of this pipeline” Vick said. “To me, one thing that is really sad is that the governor and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and the North Carolina attorney general had all been apprised and made aware either personally of through their staffs of these issues that landowners have had and they have done nothing to protect them.”

Ruby said landowners whose property will be used for the pipeline are making important contributions to help build public infrastructure.

The ACP, a 600-mile, $6 billion project, would bring about 186 miles of high-pressure natural gas transmission pipeline through eight North Carolina counties. Wilson County would have about 12 miles of pipeline crossing land of some 60 property owners. The project will require that a 100-foot-wide swath be cleared along the route to make way for crews to bury the 36-inch-wide pipe into the ground.

“It’s for the good of the community,” Ruby said. “It’s going to bring cleaner electricity, lower energy costs and more economic opportunity to communities across North Carolina. We couldn’t achieve that without the contribution of these landowners, and they deserve our recognition for that.”

Winstead called the ACP developers “unscrupulous.”

“They are bound and determined to do whatever it takes to get their pipeline and honesty doesn’t have anything to do with it,” Winstead said. “I am sure they will appeal that decision to a higher court. I don’t see that it will be permanent and that they will do a detour around my land.”

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