HOPEWELL: Pipeline company sends out easement purchase offers

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By Frank Mustac Special Writer
HOPEWELL TWP. — Opponents of the proposed PennEast pipeline are sounding an alarm to landowners along the planned natural-gas transmission route.
Landowners have started receiving packages of material from PennEast’s land agents, Western Land Services, according to Patty Cronheim of the organization Hopewell Township Citizens Against the PennEast Pipeline.
The mail parcels contain contracts for the PennEast company to buy easement rights from owners for properties along or near the preferred path of the natural gas conduit.
“The proposed PennEast pipeline is not a done deal and might never be approved,” reads a recently published letter to the editor from Ms. Cronheim. “The company does not have any eminent domain powers, and homeowners do not have to make any decisions or sign anything at this time.”
The PennEast Pipeline Company is waiting for approvals from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a permit to proceed with construction of the proposed 118-mile-long, 36-inch natural gas pipeline that would start in Luzerne County, Pa., near Wilkes-Barre and pass through parts of Hunterdon and Mercer counties in New Jersey and end at a junction with an existing pipeline in southeastern Hopewell Township near Blackwell Road.
PennEast specifically is requesting that FERC issue what’s called a certificate of public convenience and necessity. The pipeline company would be not able to break ground for the estimated billion-dollar-plus pipeline project before FERC and the state Department of Environmental Protection give formal consent.
Patricia Kornick, a spokeswoman for PennEast, said the company started sending out the contracts in December.
“PennEast is negotiating easement agreements with landowners whose property could be involved directly with the PennEast pipeline project,” Ms. Kornick said. “PennEast began easement agreement discussions with landowners at the beginning of October and those discussions are ongoing. The easement acquisition offer letters are individualized and a standard step in the process.”
“In addition to a memorandum of agreement for the landowner’s consideration, the letter includes a property-specific map that depicts the easement, including proposed temporary work space and the permanent easement.
“In deference to the landowners with whom PennEast continues to work, PennEast will not be releasing additional details pertaining to the easement acquisition offer letters,” Ms. Kornick said.
Ms. Cronheim, from Hopewell Township citizens group, described the contracts as “outrageous.”
“They are in PennEast’s best interest and not in the best interest of landowners, at all,” Ms. Cronheim said by phone. “I think the important thing for homeowners and landowners to know is they don’t have to make any decisions about anything right now.”
“And it’s never a good idea to sign anything without consulting an attorney,” she said.
Ms. Cronheim also characterized each contract as a “blank check for PennEast to do whatever they want.”
By signing an easement agreement, she said, landowners would be granting access by PennEast to property immediately, not just if the pipeline is approved.
One of things she has seen in at least one of the contracts, Ms. Cronheim said, is language that would allow PennEast to cut down trees and shrubs to create surveying site lines.
“Survey work can really be invasive,” said Ms. Cronheim, also explaining that if the pipeline is ultimately not approved, people will still stuck with an easement on their land.
“Easements don’t go away,” she said. “PennEast will have control of that and the landowners won’t.”
“There are a lot of bad things in these contracts for landowners,” Ms. Cronheim said.
Only about 35 percent of owners of land in New Jersey along the planned pipeline route have permitted PennEast access to their properties for surveying, according to the state DEP — meaning about 65 percent have not.
In October 2015, the Hopewell Township Committee passed a resolution designed to block PennEast from surveying from township rights-of-way. PennEast wants access to both public and private property for surveying purposes to finalized a preferred route of the proposed pipeline.
In July of last year, the Township Committee also approved a resolution prohibiting the pipeline company from surveying public property within the municipality.
In October 2014, the committee also voiced its disapproval of PennEast when it adopted a resolution opposing construction of the pipeline project. The committee also authorized the township administration to participate and intervene in the regulatory process “as necessary to protect the interests of the township and its residents,” according to the resolution. 