At a special public meeting in Richmond on October 16, 2017, the board of trustees of the Virginia Outdoors Foundation unanimously approved applications for “conversion of open space” by two natural gas pipeline developers that propose to cross 11 VOF open-space easements in five counties.
VOF first learned about the two pipelines in 2014. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), being developed by a partnership that includes Dominion Energy, told VOF in 2016 that it would need to cross 10 easements in Highland, Bath, Augusta and Nelson counties as a result of rerouting to avoid U.S. Forest Service land. The Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), being developed by a joint venture that includes EQT Midstream Partners, is proposing a permanent access road on a VOF easement in Roanoke County, but is not proposing to cross the property with the pipeline itself.
Both developers received Certificates of Public Convenience and Necessity from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on October 13.
From the outset, VOF stressed avoidance of its easements and informed the developers that incursions would be incompatible with the conservation values of the easements, therefore triggering a process in state law known as “conversion” of open space. The developers were asked in 2016 to submit applications for conversion to VOF’s trustees, who worked with the Office of the Attorney General to determine whether the applications met the requirements of the law. In February 2017, the trustees heard presentations from the developers, VOF staff, and affected landowners, and received comments from hundreds of citizens.
In the resolutions approving the applications, the trustees said that, while the developers failed to demonstrate the projects are “essential to the orderly development and growth of the locality” under section 1704 of the Virginia Open-space Land Act, this requirement is superseded and preempted by the federal Natural Gas Act that authorizes FERC’s certificate process. The Natural Gas Act does not, however, strip VOF’s authority to review the projects and require substitute land of greater conservation value under Virginia law.
The two resolutions, which were adopted 5-0 and 7-0 (two trustees abstained during the ACP vote for personal reasons), included several conditions. Among them are restrictions on the footprint of the pipelines and access roads, the conveyance to VOF of more than 1,100 acres of substitute land in Highland, Nelson, and Roanoke counties, and the transfer of $4.075 million in stewardship funding for the properties’ long-term care and maintenance.
As a result of these approvals, the VOF easements will remain in place on the properties with overlaying permanent rights-of-way for the pipeline developers.
“After three years of exhaustive review, several public meetings, and hundreds of comments from the public, our board felt that utilizing the long-established conversion process in state law was preferable to forcing the developers to condemn our easements through eminent domain,” says VOF Executive Director Brett Glymph. “Their decision was a difficult one, but they firmly believe this outcome is in the best interests of both the public and the long-term sustainability of Virginia’s open-space conservation program.”