News

Property owners criticize Sunoco negotiations

Written by Daniel Walmer/Lebanon Daily News | Jan 6, 2016 2:58 AM
mariner_east_landowner.jpg

Jerry and Kathy Thomas shows the proximity of Sunoco's easement to his home and front yard. Jerry Thomas is concerned that the Mariner East 2 pipeline on his property at 6 Oxford Drive in Heidelberg Township could pose a risk to his well, located just 10 feet away from the proposed easement. (Photo: Michael K. Dakota, Lebanon Daily News)

They say pipeline company is unaccomodating.

(Undated) -- Sunoco Logistics says it's committed to working with property owners when obtaining property easements to build the Mariner East 2 pipeline -- and, two years ago, Heidelberg Township resident Jerry Thomas would have had no reason to doubt that claim.

He isn't an environmental activist dead-set against the pipeline, and he had always had pleasant interactions with the local Sunoco representative who occasionally performed maintenance on the existing pipeline on his property, he said. When Sunoco first met with Jerry and his wife, Katherine, about securing a new easement last winter, representatives were very polite.

"We got along great," he said. "We just assumed, 'this was going to be a good negotiation.'"

But Thomas soon discovered that most of the negotiation wasn't negotiable at all, he said.

Take the location of the proposed new pipeline easement, which snakes through his 6 Oxford Drive property within view of his front porch, patio, and in-ground swimming pool, and within 10 feet of his well, he said. Sunoco's temporary easement could allow construction vehicles to drive directly over his well head.

When asked if the permanent easement could be moved 15 feet farther back from his well, Thomas said the Sunoco negotiator told him, "'There's no way they'll ever do that for you, Mr. Thomas.'"

He also tried to get the price of his easement closer to what he thinks it would be worth -- or at least closer to the rate per linear feet provided to his neighbors -- but Sunoco refused to even consider negotiating a reasonable deal, he said.

From there, things went south quickly -- so quickly, in fact, that he believes he was "targeted" by Sunoco because Sunoco wanted to get him in court to be able to establish its power of eminent domain over property owners.

After 9 p.m. one mid-August night, Thomas said, he was startled when he was someone knocked on his front door. When he opened it, a woman covered in tattoos and piercings appeared. She thrust papers at him and turned away with no explanation, and the papers turned out to be letters of condemnation announcing that Sunoco would be taking his land by eminent domain.

His case is now one of three consolidated lawsuits involving property owners in Heidelberg Township that are challenging Sunoco's right to eminent domain in the Lebanon County Court of Common Pleas. A decision by Senior Judge Robert Eby is expected as soon as early January.

The other property owners involved in the consolidated lawsuits provided similar tales, particularly regarding Sunoco's willingness to negotiate.

Brenda Nell said was surprised by an initial offer of only $3,000 for a pipeline running through the heart of her 1.6-acre property and across a driveway to a shop building her husband uses as a business headquarters.

Then, in the midst of what she thought was a negotiation, she received a condemnation letter from Sunoco in the mail -- and didn't see their representatives again until they were in court.

Sunoco offered $18,955 for Tish Moyer's large Heidelberg Township property, which spans about 2,300 linear feet. Moyer aimed high with a Jan. 26 itemized counter-proposal that totaled more than $180,000 plus annual lease payments, and she mailed a second proposal after she didn't hear back regarding her first proposal.

The only response she received was a March 17 letter repeating Sunoco's initial offer and threatening eminent domain proceedings if the offer was not accepted, she said.

"These big corporations, they just bulldoze," she said.

Sunoco reaction

Sunoco spokesman Jeff Shields said he couldn't speak to the specifics of cases involving property owners under pending litigation.

"I think our record shows that we've been able to negotiate in good faith with landowners," Shields said. "I think there's always going to be some landowners that aren't happy with us being there, and that's going to cast a different light on everything that we do."

Regarding Thomas's encounter with the tattooed woman, he said Sunoco wouldn't have someone knock on a door late at night for the purpose of intentionally intimidating a land owner.

Good interactions

Not all landowners have soured relations with pipeline companies.

Honey Bear Orchards owner Nelson Heagy hasn't had interactions with Sunoco or Williams, but he has interacted for years with representatives of the Texas Eastern natural gas pipeline going through his North Annville Township land. Two years ago, the pipeline owners wanted another 25 feet of right of way, and because there are peach and apple trees in the area, the monetary compensation required was expensive.

"They honored that formula and compensated us well," Heagy said. "The whole process just went pretty smooth."

South Annville Township Supervisor Chet Horst said other farmers in the township who are directly impacted by the Williams-owned proposed Atlantic Sunrise pipeline have told him they've had pleasant experiences negotiating easements.

Easement Values

Williams Partners often offers owners as much as two to four times the assessed value of their land in hopes of reaching an agreement quickly, said Williams spokesman Christopher Stockton. More than half of the route's location has also been changed based on feedback and concern from landowners, he said.

Local experts had different views on the reasonableness of easement offers from pipeline companies.  From the properties he's been asked to examine, Annville-based appraiser Nelson Ebersole said Williams has been "very, very fair" with its offers.

But Jim Sherer, a Realtor with Lancaster County-based Kingsway Realty who has experience selling properties with pipelines, examined Thomas's property and believes the pipeline will have an "enormous" impact on the value of the house.

"It's ugly what they're offering those people," he said. "They're taking advantage of them and trying to railroad it through."


This article comes to us through a partnership between WITF and Lebanon Daily News.

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