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AG Rejects PennEast Offers for Easements on Protected Lands

Pipeline company says it will begin eminent domain actions if landowners hold out after deadline

pipeline

New Jersey rejected offers of compensation from the PennEast Pipeline Co. for the right to build its line through several parcels of preserved land in Hunterdon County, saying the company has not given officials enough time to evaluate the offers, and has not explained how it arrived at the specific amounts.

Writing on behalf of five state agencies that own or have an interest in the lands, Assistant Attorney General David Apy criticized PennEast's decision to "unilaterally" set a deadline of Monday for expiration of the offers, which would allow it to build the natural gas pipeline on parts of at least three parcels totaling more than 1,300 acres.

The February 2 letter also said the state can't allow the company to build rights of way on the land because a recently issued federal certificate that would allow construction to start can still be challenged in court.

"The state cannot accept PennEast's offers and sign the right-of-way because the Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity is still subject to legal challenge and PennEast has not provided sufficient information regarding the bases for the offers and the terms contained in the proposed right-of-way," the letter said.

PennEast's price for easement

PennEast offered the New Jersey Water Supply Authority and the Hunterdon Land Trust $54,400 for a permanent easement of 1.5 acres and another 2.2 acres of temporary easement on a 66-acre parcel known as "Muddy Run" which was purchased with funding from Green Acres, a state program that funds protected lands.

In a letter supplied by the Department of Environmental Protection, the company said it was offering more than the appraised value of $13,300 in an effort to settle the matter with the state agencies.

For another small parcel near Lambertville, the company offered the state's Department of Transportation $22,200, up from an appraised value of $12,200 for a permanent easement of 0.16 acre, according to another letter from PennEast.

Eminent domain

In both cases, the company said it would begin eminent domain proceedings to obtain the land if the state does not agree to the offers. Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP, confirmed the state is letting the offers expire on Monday.

PennEast is also seeking an easement at Hunterdon County's Milford Bluffs, a 260-parcel owned by the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust, a state agency, according to Tom Gilbert, campaign manager for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, which opposes the pipeline.

Gilbert said the AG's letter can apply to different parcels in which the state has an interest. "This letter, in how broadly it's written, could apply to quite a number of those properties," he said.

The DEP has yet to issue a wetlands permit for the project, and last week told the company that its permit application was "administratively closed" because it has still not supplied enough information. The project, which has stirred strong opposition from some communities along the route, also needs a permit from the Delaware River Basin Commission.

The company's deadline applies also to private landowners, some of whom are refusing to sign leases. In Northampton County, Pennsylvania, last Friday, about 20 landowners ceremonially ripped up leases, saying they would not allow the pipeline to be built on their land.

The pipeline is due to run about 120 miles from Luzerne County, Pennsylvania to Mercer County, New Jersey. The company says it has secured contracts for most of the gas, which will supply utilities and individual users in both states. Opponents including the New Jersey Rate Counsel, an advocate for utility ratepayers, say there is no need for the gas.

The Attorney General's letter rejected as untrue the company's assertion that it had tried on multiple occasions to negotiate easements with the state.

It said the state would not agree to PennEast's request to modify the pipeline route without any comment from officials because doing so would be "contrary to the state's obligations to its citizens."

Confidential right of way

The letter also dismissed a request for assistance in obtaining regulatory approvals because "the state cannot contract away its regulatory authority." And it said that PennEast's request to keep a right of way confidential would be contrary to public policy.

PennEast spokeswoman Pat Kornick declined to respond to the AG's specific criticisms and said the company looks forward to reaching agreement with the state.

"PennEast views the February 2 response letter as a step in the right direction to advance dialogue, though honors as confidential specific points of negotiation between all landowners and PennEast," Kornick said in a statement.

She declined to say how many landowners in both states have yet to sign leases but said 75 percent have agreed to allow their land to be surveyed.

The New Jersey Conservation Foundation welcomed the state's rejection of the company's offers as a sign that the new administration of Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy will defend the open-space program.

"The Murphy Administration has sent a clear message that it will uphold the integrity of preserved lands and the state programs that protect open space, farmland, and historic sites for our children and grandchildren," said Michele S. Byers, executive director.

Jon Hurdle is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who often covers water and other environmental issues.

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