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Archived News

Utility threatens to have church land condemned

The Virginian-Pilot
July 27, 2006
By Janette Rodrigues

CHESAPEAKE — A Richmond-based utility company is threatening to have a church’s property condemned if it doesn’t make way for a natural gas pipeline. Columbia Gas of Virginia wants a 30-foot easement between St. Mary’s Catholic Church and Homestead Road in Sunray, a historic Polish farming community between Bowers Hill and Western Branch.

The company began contacting Sunray residents and property owners, some of whom have attended the church for generations, about easements for the Bowers Hill loop pipeline project in November.

The small parish of 117 families wants no part of a pipeline that might damage church buildings during construction, church members said this week. They are worried about a gas explosion occurring a few feet from their quaint, white clapboard church sanctuary. Founded in 1916 by Polish immigrants who came to the area shortly after the turn of the 20th century, St. Mary’s has always been the heart of the community, said Bruce McDaniel, church buildings and grounds administrator.

The church is concerned that an easement might impede future building plans for the 6-acre property. “When you have a utility easement like that, you lose control of the property,” McDaniel said. “You have to ask the gas company to do anything to your building.”

Columbia Gas wants the land to expand its network of distribution pipes to meet demand for services in Chesapeake, Portsmouth and Suffolk, said Bob Innus, a company spokesman. He said the gas company does not place pipelines under structures, nor does it use the entire easement. He said the pipeline under construction would go under a sidewalk in front of the church, and the company does such things all the time. St. Mary’s rebuffed Columbia’s offer in February. Columbia Gas wants the land to expand its network of distribution pipes to meet demand for services in Chesapeake, Portsmouth and Suffolk, said Bob Innus, a company spokesman. He said the gas company does not place pipelines under structures, nor does it use the entire easement. He said the pipeline under construction would go under a sidewalk in front of the church, and the company does such things all the time. St. Mary’s rebuffed Columbia’s offer in February.

A month later, the church received a letter from a law firm that advised the parish that it had been retained by the utility company to “proceed to institute condemnation proceedings” for the easement.

A public utility company may forcibly buy land for a public purpose as long as it fairly compensates the owner. “We have not filed anything,” Innus said. “We have been talking to them since the first of the year, and we will continue to talk to them. Hopefully, we work out a satisfactory agreement.”

Some Sunray residents have sold easements to Columbia Gas rather than go to court. Others say they are unwilling to sell off a piece of their heritage. That includes John Skrobiszewski, 65, a Tidewater Community College administrator who owns a house and farmland across the street from the church. “The subtle threats are what really upset me,” he said of the condemnation letter he received for an easement on his family homestead. “They don’t have any right stomping on us.”

In June, the gas company increased its easement offer to $15,000 from the original $3,000. Last week, the church hired a lawyer, Joseph Waldo, who specializes in condemnation cases, to represent it should the matter end up in court. But there is no public use here. Building a hotel or upscale condominiums so someone else can live there is not a public use or even a public purpose.