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Judge limits Harford residents' access to Columbia Gas funds

A federal judge ruled this week that owners of multiple Harford County properties — where portions of a 21-mile underground gas pipeline are being installed under an eminent domain claim — cannot fully access funds set aside by the gas company as a form of collateral until a final determination is made at trial on compensation.

Columbia Gas Transmission LLC was granted access to the properties in June to begin installing a back-up gas line between Owings Mills and Fallston under condition that it file a cash bond payment of $231,675 to the court, according to court records.

That payment, equivalent to the estimated damages to the properties, was meant to serve as security for the property owners pending a trial next year to determine final compensation.

Five Fallston property owners instead asked the court for access to the funds immediately, with one couple arguing that "if Columbia is granted the right to take immediate possession" of their property, then the homeowners should be "entitled to immediate payment for the rights being taken."

"It is one thing for landowners to wait for a trial to resolve the issue of payment of just compensation for property because at least they can still use their property in the interim," wrote three other residents in a separate argument. "It is quite another to force landowners to spend thousands of dollars up front to implement protective measures during construction that Columbia has refused to adopt — and to then be forced to either (a) spend more money on an attorney to chase recovery of those funds in a court proceeding or (b) wait months until a trial to learn whether that money will be recovered at all."

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Ellen Hollander denied the residents' requests, writing that "the delays inherent in litigation are unfortunate," but are not "a basis to grant" the residents' request.

The $180 million pipeline will travel through about 76 acres in both Baltimore and Harford counties, and is intended to run parallel to and serve as a back-up for another line that already exists.

Columbia Gas first sued 30 homeowners along the pipeline track for rights to use their properties in January, after the plan was approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in November.

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