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Pipeline coming through? Know your rights

With the Atlantic Sunrise natural gas pipeline getting the green light recently to proceed through Central Pennsylvania, it’s important for affected property owners to know their rights.

In Lancaster County alone, the pipeline will cross 37 miles and plans call for it to carry gas through 10 counties in all. Plans call for at least two other pipelines, the Mariner East 2 and Mariner East 2X, to move natural gas fluids such as propane across the southern part of Pennsylvania, including parts of Cumberland and Lebanon counties.

With Marcellus Shale home to the most productive natural gas wells in the country, it’s no surprise that plans to build new pipelines are in the news – as are the ongoing fights over what path these lines will take.

While opponents are continuing to fight, so far the pipelines have received approval to move forward. Property owners in the path will be receiving notices that part of their land will be taken under eminent domain – the term used for the acquiring of private land for public use. As part of the process, the companies behind the pipeline will compensate the property’s owner for what its appraiser determines is just compensation for the confiscation.

There are many ways to arrive at just compensation. If you’re the property owner, it’s well worth your time to invest in your own appraiser and lawyer. In fact, Pennsylvania’s eminent domain law says the entity doing the taking has to reimburse the property owner up to $4,000 for such costs.

In my more than 50 years in real estate, I’ve handled many cases where a well-documented argument results in a property owner receiving more compensation than initially offered.

Why? Because under Pennsylvania’s eminent domain law, a property’s value must be based on its “highest and best use’’ – a principle that became state law of the land following a lawsuit filed in 1958 by my parents, George and Dorothy Rothman.

At issue was Pennsylvania’s plan to straighten a section of Locust Lane – a project that would have taken part of the Lower Paxton Township cattle farm that had been in my family since the early 1940s. When the state looked at the land – much of it where the Dauphin County Technical School now sits – the commonwealth’s appraisers offered compensation based on its use as cropland.

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Years before my father had hired a surveyor and drew up a plot plan for a housing development; Locust Lane’s new path would have taken as many as 15 lots. The case worked its way up through the Dauphin County Court, the Commonwealth Court and finally the state Supreme Court, which in 1962 ruled in favor of my parents.

For landowners in the path of these proposed pipelines, the question isn’t just what is the property’s current value, but what could it be worth if developed to its “highest and best use.’’

These pipelines represent no small intrusion. In Lebanon County’s case, a 100-foot corridor is needed during construction and the permanent easement is 50 feet. A property owner is entitled to compensation for both the construction phase of the project and 50-foot wide section – which must be kept clear of buildings, trees and other improvements.

In some cases there may be an argument that the easement essentially prevents the entire property from being used. Such was the case with some of the homes and businesses I appraised when PennDOT widened Routes 322-22 along the Lewistown Narrows to accommodate Penn State traffic.

Today, the fighting is over the proposed paths of natural gas pipelines … tomorrow it may be a new highway widening, a bridge replacement or public building.

What does not change is the right of every Pennsylvania property owner to receive just compensation for land taken for a public purpose.

Bill Rothman is a Pennsylvania state certified appraiser with more than 50 years of experience. He also is a founding partner of RSR Realtors and RSR Appraisers & Analysts, both in Lemoyne. He can be reached at 717-763-1212 or brothman@rsrrealtors.com

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