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Columbia Gas Transmission LLC v. 0.85 Acres, More or Less, In Harford Cnty.

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Northern Division

September 8, 2014

COLUMBIA GAS TRANSMISSION LLC, Plaintiff,
v.
0.85 ACRES, MORE OR LESS, IN HARFORD CNTY., MD, ET AL., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

WILLIAM D. QUARLES, Jr., District Judge.

Columbia Gas Transmission LLC ("Columbia") filed a complaint in condemnation against a parcel of property ("the Property")[1] and its owners, Frank A. Tedeschi and Susan M. Tedeschi ("the Defendants"). Columbia seeks to exercise its power of eminent domain under the Natural Gas Act[2] to acquire permanent and temporary easements over the Property. Pending are Columbia's motions for partial summary judgment and for immediate possession. The Court held a hearing on September 3, 2014. For the following reasons, the motions will be granted.

I. Background[3]

Columbia is an interstate natural gas company as defined by the Natural Gas Act and is subject to the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ("FERC"). See ECF No. 7-2 at 2; 15 U.S.C. ยง 717a(6). Columbia is the operator of a 26-inch natural gas pipeline designated Line MA.[4] Columbia must create Line MB to meet the public need for natural gas and to address safety concerns for the aging pipeline, including "risks that the pipeline may fail, collapse, explode, or leak, causing bodily and property injury or death." See ECF No. 7-2 at 2.

On October 22, 2012, Columbia filed a FERC request for authorization to construct and operate facilities to create line MB. ECF No. 1-2 at 1. The Defendants' property is within the path of Columbia's proposal. ECF No. 7-3 at 5.[5] In its proposal, Columbia requested a 75-foot construction right-of-way and 50-foot permanent easement for the pipeline. ECF No. 1-2 at 34.

Columbia made several attempts to negotiate an easement with the Defendants.[6] ECF No. 7-3 at 5. On January 29, 2013, the Defendants attended a meeting with Columbia to discuss a reroute option for the pipeline that they preferred. Id. On February 21, 2013, Columbia offered the Defendants $53, 200.00 for the easement agreements. Id. On February 28, 2013, Mr. Tedeschi met with Michael McClain to review aerial imagery of the proposed pipeline route and workspace. Id.

On March 30, 2013, Columbia's acquisition agent went to the Defendants' home to deliver an advanced copy of the requested written offer. Id. at 6. The Defendants were not available to discuss the offer; the acquisition agent left a card asking the Defendants to contact him. Id. On April 5, 2014, Columbia sent the Defendants a written offer via certified mail. Id. On April 13, 2013, Mr. Tedeschi called the acquisition agent, confirmed receipt of the offer letter, and stated that they would discuss the offer with their attorneys. Id. "[T]he agent asked if there was anything that could be done to... expedite an amicable agreement." Id.

On April 15, 2013, the Defendants sent Columbia a letter concerning a possible agreement and including stipulations.[7] Id. On May 2, 2013, Mr. Tedeschi called Columbia and requested a formal response to the proposed stipulations. Id. On May 3, 2013, Columbia and the Defendants attempted to schedule an assessment to address some of the Defendants' damage concerns. Id. On May 8, 2013, Columbia sent to the Defendants a formal response addressing their concerns. Id. On June 3, 2013, Columbia's Right-of-Way Supervisor called Mr. Tedeschi "in effort to resolve outstanding issues [regarding the Defendants' Septic Reserve Area ("SRA")] and accommodate settlement." Id. at 7. On June 25, 2013, Columbia sent an offer letter to the Defendants to purchase the easements. Id.

On November 21, 2013, FERC issued Columbia a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity ("FERC Certificate") granting Columbia's October 22, 2012 request. Id. at 1.[8] The FERC Certificate placed conditions on Columbia's project, including addressing possible issues with homeowners' SRAs. See ECF No. 1-2 at 47-51. In Harford County, landowners who wish to reduce the size of their SRA because of the presence of a pipeline must seek approval of a re-filing plat with the Harford County Bureau of Environmental Health. See ECF No. 1-2 at 31. As a condition of the FERC Certificate, Columbia was required to submit the reduction requests before construction. See ECF No. 1-2 at 31, 52.

The FERC Certificate gave Columbia two years from the date of the order to complete construction. Id. at 44. Columbia was scheduled to begin construction on April 1, 2014. ECF No. 7-3 at 2.

Columbia "initiated the work necessary in order to file the adjusted SRA plats and obtain approval from Harford County." ECF No. 15-2 at 2. On April 23, 2014, the County Attorney for Harford County informed Columbia that the County would not accept Columbia's plat requests because Columbia was neither the owner of the properties nor the owners' agent. Id. at 3. On May 5, 2014, Columbia filed a request to modify the SRA condition because Harford County's position made it impossible for Columbia to comply. ECF No. 15 at 3-4.

Columbia contacted the Defendants "[o]n multiple occasions between January through March of 2014... to discuss wells and SRAs in order to facilitate an agreement." Id. at 7. On May 21, 2014, the parties met, but an agreement could not be reached. Id. The Defendants did not accept Columbia's offer. Id.

On May 30, 2014, FERC granted Columbia's request for modification of the SRA condition.[9] ECF No. 15-3 at 2. To meet the October 31, 2014 in-service deadline for Line MB, Columbia must begin construction on the Property by September 15, 2014. ECF No. 15-1 at 1. "A delay in the construction work and acquisition of the easements increases [public safety] risk each day the old pipeline remains in the ground."[10] ECF No. 7-3 at 2.

On July 18, 2014, Columbia filed its complaint in condemnation. ECF No. 1. On August 7, 2014, Columbia moved for partial summary judgment that it was entitled to the easements under the Natural Gas Act[11] and for immediate possession of the easements. ECF No. 7. On August 25, 2014, the Defendants responded. ECF No. 11. On August 27, 2014, Columbia replied[12] and the Defendants filed a supplement to their opposition.[13] This Court held a hearing on September 3, 2014.

II. Analysis

A. Legal Standard

1. Summary Judgment

The Court "shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a).[14] In considering the motion, the judge's function is "not... to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. A dispute about a material fact is genuine "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id. at 248.

The Court must "view the evidence in the light most favorable to... the nonmovant and draw all reasonable inferences in [her] favor, " Dennis v. Columbia Colleton Med. Ctr., Inc., 290 F.3d 639, 645 (4th Cir. 2002), but the Court must abide by the "affirmative obligation of the trial judge to prevent factually unsupported claims and defenses from proceeding to trial, " Bouchat v. Balt. Ravens ...


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