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House Judiciary Committee hears 90 minutes of debate on eminent domain bill

Published 9:00 am Thursday, February 20, 2014

Although the proposed Bluegrass Pipeline has been delayed about a year, landowners and some legislators voiced concerns Wednesday that the threat of eminent domain looms heavily over negotiations for land rights.

The House Judiciary Committee took no action after hearing more than an hour and a half of debate on House Bill 31, which would limit eminent domain power for those building natural gas liquids pipelines such as the planned Bluegrass Pipeline.

Rep. John Tilley, chairman of the committee and sponsor of HB 31, said a vote on the bill would occur after lawmakers review an amended version and take additional testimony from interested parties.

Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, said state officials — from Gov. Steve Beshear to Attorney General Jack Conway to Energy and Environment Cabinet Secretary Len Peters — clearly believe “there is a gap in the law that you could drive a truck through at this point.” HB 31 seeks to clarify the use of property condemnation through eminent domain for natural gas liquids pipelines.

“We’re just trying to clarify the existing law, a law I think everybody says, at best, is murky but, at worst, leaves a hole to be filled,” Tilley said. “… This project is proceeding. This is not to thwart a project.”

Beshear issued a statement before Wednesday’s meeting, in which he said, “Although we have been advised that existing law does not permit companies to use eminent domain for private projects like the Bluegrass Pipeline, I would welcome legislation that will clarify and codify that point.”

The Bluegrass Pipeline, a joint venture between Boardwalk Pipeline Partners and Williams Co. that will transport natural gas liquids from Pennsylvania to the Gulf Coast, is a roughly 1,100-mile project that will require some 200 miles of new construction in Kentucky, including Franklin County.

The companies have claimed receipt of more than half the easements necessary to complete Kentucky’s portion of the project, though no land has been condemned through eminent domain. Williams and Boardwalk Pipeline Partners have said they have authority to use eminent domain, but will only do so as a last resort.

With the threat of eminent domain, however, the companies have a powerful bargaining chip when negotiation land easements, said Rep. David Floyd, R-Bardstown.

“I had several constituents who called me and said, ‘Dave, these guys came by, they say they’re going to be able to use eminent domain. I think I should probably cut the best deal I can,’” Floyd said, noting he believes the companies cannot condemn land because the pipeline would not be used by Kentuckians.

Rep. James Kay, D-Versailles, said residents of nearby Millville are concerned with the proposed construction, particularly at the companies’ stance on its ability to pursue land rights through condemnation. He, too, said eminent domain could be a powerful negotiating tool when seeking easements.

“I fear, and my constituents fear, that there’s a certain leverage and a certain oppressive negotiating position that can be put on the residents and the land owners to give up those easements because if they don’t give up those easements, the company’s going to get them by the right of eminent domain regardless,” Kay said.

Amy Boone, of Louisville, said her family’s 120-acre farm in Nelson County had been surveyed for the Bluegrass Pipeline, but her family ultimately rejected the companies’ offer for land rights.

A leak in the pipeline would have destroyed springs that supply water to the farm’s cattle and horses and put her family’s home at risk, she said. Some neighbors have granted easements for the project, she said.

“Please give us the right to say no,” Boone told lawmakers. “This is your opportunity to protect landowner rights.”

While landowners and lawmakers testified for HB 31, representatives of Williams and Boardwalk Pipeline Partners did not attend the committee meeting, which was standing room only because an overflow room was unavailable.

Four individuals representing various business interests spoke against the bill, saying the state’s current eminent domain laws have proven adequate.

Greg Higdon, president and CEO of the Kentucky Association of Manufacturers, suggested allowing the courts to settle the question. A group of landowners has filed suit in Franklin Circuit Court, seeking the court’s guidance in the companies’ ability to condemn land through eminent domain.

“The courts usually give clarification,” Higdon said. “I don’t always agree with their clarification, but that’s the way our system has always worked.”