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New gas line disrupting builder's plans

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Rocky Russell talks about how a new gas line will intersect his land off of Beddard Road in Grimesland on Jan. 12, 2018. (Molly Mathis/The Daily Reflector)

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By Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, January 14, 2018

A veteran Greenville home builder says a lack of transparency in the process to relocate a natural gas distribution line has disrupted his plans to build a house.

Rocky Russell, the owner of Rocky Russell Builders and Russell Property Management, said the rules governing the location and construction of natural gas lines need to change to prevent future problems such as the one he is facing.

Russell's desire to build a house on Beddard Road is stymied because Piedmont Natural Gas plans to run a distribution line at a 45-degree angle through his property. If built, the line will run through the lot's planned septic field which he says will render it unusable and prevent construction.

"The week of Nov. 20 Piedmont Natural Gas literally came knocking on my door saying we're running a gas line through your property ... and this is going to happen, it's not open to negotiation," Russell said. "In advance of notifying me they went ahead an acquired the right-of-way crossings from NCDOT. Their path was already set.

"My issue is why are they not required to notify the general public, well in advance of their intended purpose."

The North Carolina Department of Transportation had multiple public meetings as part of its process for locating and building the U.S. 264 Southwest Bypass. The department also has an advanced notification process when it widens highways, such as what is occurring now with the proposed widening of 14th Street and Fire Tower and Portertown roads.

"I was getting ready to start my house in January," Russell said.

Public notice isn't required because the North Carolina Utilities Commission has no authority to require it, said Sam Waton, the commission's general counsel.

"Local distribution companies are not required to get pre-approval from the Utilities Commission before extending their distribution lines. If we have no jurisdiction, we are not going to require publication,” Watson said.

In contrast, an electric utility provider is required to get commission certification before it it can construct a high-voltage line or electric generation facility, so the commission requires publication of a notice of application.

"That does not seem fair to the landowners," Russell said. "They should give some kind of warning it's going to happen so the landowners aren't sitting there making plans for their property, as they have the right to do so, and then just spring it on them. Now I'm in reaction mode."

Piedmont Natural Gas is seeking an easement from Russell and other land owners in the area as part of its proposed 20-mile Greenville South Loop Pipeline.

A right-of-way acquisition company is reaching out to property owners and the tentative start date for construction is August, said Jennifer Sharpe, communications consultant with Piedmont Natural Gas. The work should be completed by Febuary 2019.

"It is part of our intergity management program. With Piedmont safety is the first priority,” Sharpe said.

PNG currently has a pipeline that runs through the city of Greenville, she said.

"We are getting to point there are new regulations and new federal requirements and we have a continual program to meet and exceed those requirements,” she said.

Instead of replacing the existing line, which would require digging up streets and property, the decision was made to relocate it, she said.

Instead of replacing at existing location, the line will loop around the city. The new line will begin near Nash Joyner Road, where it meets with U.S. 13. It will pass north, where U.S. 13 crosses N.C. 11 and then end near Sunnyside Road, Sharpe said. PNG will not release a map of the route for security reasons, Sharpe said.

"Putting a loop around the city, to use what our project manager said, it's the smart thing to do. It disturbs so many fewer residents and it's so much more respectful to the community." PNG declined to release information on how many parcels of property the line will cross.

Russell said it's wrong that a utility can undertake a major project without giving landowners advance notification. If he had known such a large section of the property would be needed he would have approached his house plans much differently.

Russell purchased the nearly 2-acre rectangular lot in the 2200 block of Beddard Road, located about 11 miles east of Greenville near Simpson to build a 3,500 square-foot home.

"I don't know if I'd call it a dream house but it's probably the last home I'll build myself," said Russell. The property had been permitted for a septic tank system in 2001 and the subdivision it's located in was recorded with Pitt County government in 2006.

Russell liked the lot, in part, because it shared a pond with a neighoring house. One of the first things he did was enlarge the pond, at a cost of $20,000.

It was in late summer Russell discovered survey stakes on his property, cutting an approximately 45-degree angle from the front left corner toward the right (west) property line. He was confused because no construction work was taking place on the property.

He called a local builder developing a nearby property to see if the stakes belonged to one of his crews. He also contacted Greenville Utlities Commission and Eastern Pines Water Corporation. All said they weren't involved.

Russell said a North Carolina Department of Transportation engineer he was working with who told him that Piedmont Natural Gas was doing surveying in the area. Russell said another neighborhing property owner then said he got a letter from the gas distributor in the fall of 2016 that said the company was surveying in the area because they were building a new gas line.

Russell said he never saw a letter, but admits he may have overlooked it.

Russell reached out to PNG and eventually spoke with a representative who confirmed the company wanted to locate a gas line in the area. The PNG representative told Russell the project was in its preliminary stages and he would be contacted well in advance on any formal route being chose.

In mid-November, another neighbor invited Russell to attend a meeting he was having with a PNG representative to discuss an easement agreement.

It was during that session on Nov. 20 that Russell learned PNG had selected its route and was in the process of aquiring right-of-way easement. The representative, who worked for a right-of-way aqusitation firm employed by PNG, said he couldn't explain why no one had contacted Russell after his initial inquiry. Russell said his neighbor also had never received any information other than the fall 2016 letter.

Several days later, the owner of nearby farmland told Russell that he had only recently been contacted by PNG for the first time about running the gas line through his property. The man was in the process of selling the farm for a future subdivision development, but PNG's inquiry had placed that on hold.

Russell said a PNG representative contacted him about this time. The company wanted a permenant easement through the property along the lines that had been surveyed. It would take up about one-third of the property, Russell estimated, included the land that was identified for the septic tank.

Russell said PNG has offered to pay the $300 fee Pitt County Environmental Health charges to survey and permit a new septic system. However, he doesn't believe there is enough viable property because of the pond and the house's footprint.

"I am having to spend my money to find another location for my septic tank. If I don't (find another location) I have to go back to them and say it doesn't exist, you have to buy my who lot," Russell said. "They haven't been willing to do that. They are kind of pretending there is another spot."

Sharpe said she can't comment on specifics about Russell's property. When siting pipeline routes factors such as safety, reliablity, environmental impacts, protection of cultural areas, homes and businesses have a critical role. Sharpe said she also has witnessed PNG making adjustments to routes based on landowner input.

"There are sometimes, for certain operational reasons, a route can't be adjusted ... because it's unsafe or not good for the communitiy or our customers," she said.

"In 2016 we formed over 2,000 successful agreements with landowners and never paid anything less than fair market value for property.The property can still be used for everything from raising crops, to flower beds, to gardens, to livestock ... it can still be used for all these things," Sharpe said.

Septic tank systems rely on a series of pipes and tanks to process household wastewater. Russell said based on data he's received from PNG, he won't be able to install a tank because of where the line is going. Even if he could install a tank, once solids are removed wastewater is dispersed into surrounding soil for filtering. Soil that has been disturbed by construction won't be able to properly filter.

Without a septic tank, the property is usesless, Russell said. His hope is PNG will purchase the land for a fair price.

Contact Ginger Livingston at glivingston@reflector.com or 252-329-9570. Follow her on Twitter @GingerLGDR.

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