Fighting against eminent domain
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Fighting against eminent domain


The Gerhart family moved to this plot of land
in central Pennsylvania 30 years ago. Ellen Gerhart said she and her husband wanted
to keep the land they bought intact, so they signed up with a state program to preserve
the forest. “You know, it was almost like our own park;
our own little environment. Then you got to know the trees. You got to know the landscape.” But in 2015, they got a call from a pipeline
company, Sunoco Logistics. “He said he’d like to come out and talk
to us, that Sunoco Logistics was interested in putting in a pipeline. It would run under the road in front of us
and under part of our pond.” He told her the company’s offer was generous,
but the Gerharts said no. “The damage that they were proposing to
do to the property — the damage to the trees that they would have to cut down — you can’t
pay for that. “And the moment we said no, they immediately
kicked into eminent domain.” A local judge sided with Sunoco, saying the
company was a public utility and thus had the right of eminent domain. And a few months later, a chainsaw crew showed
up on the property. Elise Gerhart, who’d grown up on the property,
protested the clearing by sitting in a tree stand on the right of way for days. Meanwhile, a group of local activists came
to protest. Five people were arrested, including Ellen
and Elise Gerhart, but in the end, the trees came down and Sunoco had its pipeline route. The company would not agree to an interview,
but in an emailed statement, Sunoco said it only used eminent domain as a last resort. Eminent domain has been used for building
highways, utility lines and parks in the U.S., but it’s also used in some states like Pennsylvania
and Ohio to build oil and gas pipelines. With the recent boom in natural gas in Pennsylvania,
companies are spending billions of dollars on new pipelines, and increasingly, they’re
using eminent domain to take land from owners like the Gerharts, who don’t want pipelines
on their land. “And you can see why it’s controversial.” Grant MacIntyre is an environmental lawyer
who used to work for the EPA. More than 100 landowners have sued Sunoco
to protest the company’s use of eminent domain in Pennsylvania. So far, the company has mainly come out ahead
in court. MacIntyre says many opposed to the pipelines
argue eminent domain is supposed to benefit the public, not a private company like Sunoco. “There’s a school of thought, a lot of people
think that the fair market value that governments or authorities using eminent domain are required
to pay may not actually be fair market value. “I think in the case of pipelines and kind
of rural property that they may go through, you may not have a high price per acre on
forested land in Pennsylvania, but if it’s someone’s homestead — a place where their
families lived for generations — that price per acre doesn’t reflect the real value to
that person.” MacIntyre said a recent Pennsylvania Supreme
Court decision that found eminent domain use for natural gas storage unconstitutional could
make it harder for energy companies to use eminent domain for pipelines. The Gerharts turned down $100,000 for the
pipeline to go through their property. Ellen Gerhart says she never even considered
it. “People have had said to me, ‘Well, you
know, but you’re not doing anything with that land. It’s just sitting there. You know, you’re not farming it, you’re not
building on it, you’re not timbering it, you’re not doing anything with it.’ “And that’s the point. It’s still hard to go and see those trees
just lying there and knowing that you can’t glue them back together. “You can’t put them back up. They’re gone.”

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