Judge: PennEast may move forward with surveys of land needed for pipeline


The PennEast Pipeline Co. LLC can move ahead with plans to seize and survey portions of properties it needs to construct a planned natural gas pipeline, despite opposition from property owners and the state.

U.S. District Court Judge Brian R. Martinotti, for the District of New Jersey, ruled on Dec. 14 in favor of PennEast, which sued for permission to condemn publicly and privately owned land to gain access and rights-of-way in preparation for constructing the natural gas pipeline between Luzerne County, Pa., and Mercer County. The pipeline would end in Hopewell Township.

In its lawsuit, PennEast asked the court to rule it could gain entry to the properties it needs, “in advance of just compensation” to property owners, so it can build the natural gas pipeline as approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and also to bar the defendants from interfering in any way with the pipeline’s construction.

The defendants include Hopewell Township, homeowners in Mercer and Hunterdon counties, the state of New Jersey, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the Delaware and Raritan Canal Commission and the State Agriculture Development Committee. Some of the properties are preserved open space and farmland parcels.

The publicly owned land in Hopewell Township includes the Hopewell Township Municipal Complex, Woolsey Park, an open space lot on Pennington-Titusville Road, a small lot on Scotch Road, the Zaitz Tract off Route 546 and an open space lot next to it, and the Mercer County-owned Baldpate Mountain.

“This is a temporary setback for the property owners that are against the pipeline. They know this is a tough battle, but they are willing to go the distance,” said attorney Timothy P. Duggan of the Stark & Stark law firm, which represent the homeowners.

While Martinotti granted permission for PennEast to condemn the land it needs, he also wrote that “this Court is not entering a final judgment, granting a permanent injunction or permitting construction to start prior to PennEast satisfying the environmental conditions in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission order.”

Martinotti’s ruling comes on the heels of a similar ruling involving a property owner in Pennsyvlania issued earlier this month. That property owner argued that PennEast could not seize her land because it had not received approval from all authorities, including New Jersey.

Meanwhile, PennEast officials were pleased with Martinotti’s ruling.

“The PennEast Pipeline Co. is pleased with the (Dec. 14) ruling allowing the project to take another step forward in delivering low-cost, reliable energy that strengthens New Jersey’s economy and creates thousands of jobs,” Tony Cox, chairman of PennEast’s Board of Managers, said in a statement.

PennEast has aligned about half of the New Jersey route with overhead power lines to reduce the need to clear the land of trees and other impacts, Cox said. PennEast is allocating millions of dollars for new open space preservation because impacts to certain preserved areas must be mitigated under state law.

The permanent easement is restricted to a 50-foot-wide corridor, of which 30 feet is maintained by PennEast, company officials said. Property owners will be compensated for temporary and permanent impacts. The property owners will continue to own and have use of their property, including for active farming, but they may not plant trees or build structures in the right-of-way.

The New Jersey Conservation Foundation has vowed to continue to fight the proposed natural gas pipeline.

“The ruling favored private interests over the public good by letting PennEast seize nearly 150 private and preserved lands for its ill-advised pipeline before the state has decided whether it will be approved,” said Tom Gilbert, the campaign director for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.

PennEast still needs approval from the DEP and the Delaware River Basin Commission. The DEP requires surveys of private land the company intends to use along its route. Lacking that information, the project cannot move forward.

Hopewell Township Mayor Kevin Kuchinski said the township “will continue to fight this scourge.”

New York State stopped the proposed Constitution Pipeline Co., which sought to build a similar natural gas pipeline, through denial of a clean water permit, he said.

“Let it proceed to the DEP,” Kuchinski said.

The PennEast pipeline needs approval of a freshwater wetlands individual permit and a water quality certificate from the state agency.