Columbia Gas sues dozens of landowners for pipeline easements

A West Virginia-based gas company is suing dozens of landowners in Baltimore and Harford counties to gain use of portions of their properties for a $180 million pipeline project.

In three federal lawsuits filed since January, Columbia Gas Transmission seeks to invoke eminent domain to obtain temporary or permanent easements on more than 400 acres for its 21-mile pipeline extension.

The project, which gained approval from federal regulators last November, has sparked concern among neighbors about safety, environmental issues and property values.

In the latest lawsuit, filed Tuesday, the company is seeking immediate access to 370 acres from more than two dozen Baltimore County landowners, saying it needs the easements to start pipeline construction. The company says it was able to reach agreements with other landowners affected by the pipeline route, but could not do so with the owners named in the suit.

"Columbia has negotiated with the Landowners and made bona fide efforts to acquire the necessary easements by agreement but has been unable to obtain any such rights by contract, or to agree with the Landowners upon the compensation to be paid," the lawsuit states.

A spokesman for Columbia did not return requests for comment on Thursday, and attorneys for the Charleston-based company could not be reached.

Columbia Gas plans to extend an existing line from Owings Mills to Fallston, saying the project would improve service reliability for customers in Central Maryland and surrounding regions. In court filings, Columbia says it wants to start construction in June.

Last month, the company sued about 30 property owners in Baltimore and Harford counties to gain easements on roughly 76 acres.

One issue at play in that lawsuit is a dispute between the company and landowners over how much the new pipeline will decrease their property values, according to Rockville lawyer Joseph Suntum, who represents some of the defendants.

"The general issue in a condemnation case is usually the amount of just compensation," he said.

Carolyn Elefant, a Washington lawyer representing a landowner in the case, said another issue is that Columbia still needs federal environmental permits.

"If these permits are denied and the pipeline route is changed, [Columbia] might ending up taking property" that is not needed, she said.

In a related lawsuit filed in January, Columbia claims it needs access to seven landowners' properties for geotechnical surveying to determine whether it can do "horizontal directional drilling."

"They didn't give a lot of information, and these landowners really have no idea where the drilling is going to be," Elefant said. She said the federal certificate authorizing the project does not cover the horizontal directional drilling.

State Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Pikesville Democrat who has been an outspoken critic of the pipeline project, said he believes Columbia did not present fair deals to many landowners, instead offering them "peanuts."

"I think it's disgusting what [Columbia is] doing to the people of Baltimore County," Zirkin said.

He said citizens have not been supported by local officials, and in particular criticized Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz for not speaking up about the issue.

"What I think is equally disgusting is the utter silence coming from our county executive and the county government, which is supposed to be protecting the citizens of Baltimore County, instead of kowtowing to the oil and gas industry," he said.

A spokeswoman for Kamenetz to declined to comment.

The pipeline extension will cut through the county's largest park, Oregon Ridge Park, running parallel to an existing line there. Advocates for the park say the project will destroy acres of forest and could disrupt wildlife there.

The county's environmental chief has said county officials don't believe the project will have a significant environmental impact on the park.

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