Sabal Trail repeatedly sent letters to landowners claiming Georgia eminent domain authority –SpectraBusters to judge

SpectraBusters sent examples of Sabal Trail’s many threats of eminent domain, in this letter to Leesburg for the ongoing eminent domain and criminal trespass trial.

300x388 Standing, in Sb leesburg, by John S. Quarterman, for, 31 March 2015

Re: Case number 14CV208RS
Judge Rucker Smith

To: Cindy Clark
Civil Deputy Clerk
County Courthouse
100 Leslie Highway
Leesburg, Georgia 31763

If it please the court,

SpectraBusters, Inc. is a Georgia nonprofit corporation with board members and other participants in all three states directly affected by the Sabal Trail proposed pipeline: Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. The SpectraBusters board voted Monday March 30th 2015 to send this letter to the court to express our concerns about Sabal Trail’s attempts to claim Georgia eminent domain long before it tried to claim customers in Georgia, as well as possible ill effects throughout the pipeline route, especially in Georgia, if the judge were to rule in this case for application of Georgia eminent domain. Even with Sabal Trail’s claimed agreement with the Metropolitan Gas Authority of Georgia (MGAG), Sabal Trail is still “a long way” from supplying any gas in Georgia, according to MGAG. For that and other reasons set forth in this letter, SpectraBusters, Inc. respectfully requests the court to rule against any Georgia eminent domain authority for Sabal Trail, whether based on O.C.G.A. 22-3-88 or any other Georgia law.

All the landowners who received or whose attorneys sent the attached letters have made them available to SpectraBusters for use in opposing the proposed Sabal Trail pipeline, all are thus active SpectraBusters participants, and all will be affected by any ruling in the present case. Sabal Trail has previously claimed court precedents, sometimes vaguely, and sometimes specifically the February 2014 Stewart County ruling or other cases, so it is of great concern that Sabal Trail might similarly claim any ruling for eminent domain in the present case as a precedent. Regardless of whether legally it would be a precedent applicable to other landowners, recipients of letters making such a claim might believe it and thus be frightened into granting survey access, or even into agreeing to a pipeline easement. Such potential recipients include all the landowners mentioned in the attached letters and an unknown number of other landowners throughout the state of Georgia. The number is unknown because Sabal Trail and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) refuse to release any list of directly affected landowners. Nonetheless, it is safe to assume hundreds if not thousands of Georgia landowners could be directly affected, including many SpectraBusters participants.

Sabal Trail has been sending letters to local landowners threatening use of Georgia eminent domain using O.C.G.A. 22-3-88 since at least the fall of 2013, as evidenced by the attached letters to landowners in Colquitt County, Brooks County, and Lowndes County, listed in the following paragraphs.

On 19 November 2014, Colquitt County landowner Sandra Y. Jones filed with FERC under docket PF14-1 and accession number 20141119-5122, in which she included an escalating series of threats she had received in letters from Sabal Trail and its attorneys.

  • 300x387 2013-09-16 Sabal Trail to Sandra Jones (2 of 3), in Jones, by Sandra Jones, for, 19 November 2014 16 September 2013 letter from Kitty Maidens of Sabal Trail claiming O.C.G.A. 22-3-88 gave Sabal Trail rights to access property for surveying.

  • 18 October 2013 letter from Kitty Maidens of Sabal Trail claiming those alleged O.C.G.A. 22-3-88 surveying rights "have been affirmed in Georgia courts" and "We are making this final request in an effort to avoid the court process defined in these statutes or any other legal remedies available to the company."

  • 26 November 2013 letter from Matthew J. Calvert of Hutton & Williams LLP in Atlanta claiming to represent Sabal Trail and explicitly threatening the use of O.C.G.A. 22-3-88 eminent domain authority.

Lowndes County landowner Larry Rodgers received and had his attorney respond to a threat of application of O.C.G.A. 22-3-88 eminent domain authority.

  • 26 November 2013, letter from Matthew J. Calvert of Hutton & Williams LLP, claimed for Sabal Trail "its legal right and need to enter the Property" citing O.C.G.A. 22-3-88 eminent domain authority and citing several court cases which the letter alleged supported that alleged right.

  • 4 December 2013, letter from Bill Langdale of Langdale Vallotton, LLP, attorney for Larry Rodgers Investments, LLC, pointing out that none of the cases cited by Sabal Trail’s attorney pertain to pipeline companies, and pointing out O.C.G.A. 22-3-80 explicitly distinguishes pipelines as special cases.

The Langdale letter also notes that:

In that regard, our review of the law suggests that one of these “special procedures” requires pipeline companies to obtain a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity, pursuant to O.C.G.A. ยง 22-3-82(c), prior to conducting the type of surveys you describe in your Request.

The Langdale letter also cites the notice requirements of O.C.G.A. 22-3-82(a) and the O.C.G.A. 22-3-88 requirement for the pipeline "to actually furnish the natural gas in the State of Georgia as a condition of exercising eminent domain rights in Georgia." The Langdale letter concludes that "any entry on our client’s Property would be an unauthorized entry."

Brooks County landowners Charles H. Harper and Mavis L. Harper received an eminent domain threat from Sabal Trail citing a recent Georgia ruling as an alleged precedent.

  • 300x404 Sabal Trail to Brooks County landowners, in Sabal Trail citing Stewart County injunction in Brooks County, Georgia 12 April 2014 letter from Kitty Maidens of Sabal Trail citing as precedent for using O.C.G.A. 22-3-88 eminent domain authority, and attaching a copy of, the Stewart County order by Judge W. James Sizemore, Jr. of 20 February 2014 in Case No. 14CV029 of the Superior Court of Stewart County, Georgia.

Yet that order only applies to that one case in Stewart County, according to Judge Rucker Smith in the 10 July 2014 hearing on the present case in Leesburg. That Stewart County ruling also presupposes what Sabal Trail has not proven:

28. The Project is intended to enhance the reliability of the natural gas transportation network in the southeast, support the needs of other regional power generators and natural gas customers, and address the growing demand for natural gas.

None of that has been substantiated, and even if it were true, none of it demonstrates any customers for Sabal Trail in Georgia, which is what O.C.G.A. 22-3-88 seems to require.

Sabal Trail in its 21 November 2014 application to FERC in Docket CP15-17 for a construction permit and in various news stories has claimed an agreement to sell natural gas in Georgia through the Metropolitan Gas Authority of Georgia (MGAG). Please note that none of the letters cited above ahat were sent to landowners before November 2014 mentioned any such deal, nor did they mention any other alleged customers of Sabal Trail in Georgia. Thus it would appear that the claims of application of O.C.G.A. 22-3-88 in all those previous letters were devoid of legal legitimacy.

In response to complaints from landowners about such letters, Sabal Trail’s Director of Stakeholder Outreach Andrea Grover was quoted in the Valdosta Daily Times (VDT) by Joe Adgie 19 November 2014 as saying any threats of eminent domain were “hard to believe”. She also was quoted as saying:

“We are only on those properties that we have permission to be there, or have agreements in place to be there. These are things that we instill in our workforce.”

Judge Smith may recall Ms. Grover in his courtroom 10 July 2014 at the previous hearing about alleged Sabal Trail trespass after threats of eminent domain. She was interviewed by Wright Gazaway for WALB that same day at the Leesburg courthouse, in a story that aired that evening. Thus it is mysterious how she or Sabal Trail could assert that someone associated with Sabal Trail was not on a landowner’s property without permission, or that Sabal Trail had not threatened eminent domain. Yet she continued to do so in the media.

Joe Adgie quoted from the 26 November 2013 Matthew J. Calvert letter and the 4 December 2013 Bill Langdale letter in the VDT 26 November 2014, in "Residents share eminent domain letters":

Property owners state that these letters contradict a recent statement by Grover to the Times that accusations that they had been threatened with eminent domain on their properties was “hard to believe.”

“I would really disagree with any of those accusations,” Grover said.

Sabal Trail doubled down on those denials. As Joe Adgie wrote for the VDT 3 December 2014 in "Sabal Trail: Accusations ‘lack any substance’",

Lisa Connolly, general manager of rates and certificates for Sabal Trail, said that letters sent to property owners should be read in a different light than was presented.

“A fair reading of these letters confirms Sabal Trail’s position that it has not threatened to institute proceedings against landowners to acquire property by eminent domain and demonstrates that [Sandra Jones’s] allegations lack any substance,” Connolly wrote to FERC on Monday.

As Judge Rucker noted in the hearing in the present case 24 March 2015, it is difficult to see how surveying would not be for the purpose of acquiring property easements.

In the same 3 December 2014 VDT article, Ms. Grover was quoted:

“I am quite confident that any objective reading of the letters will determine that the letters are intended to be informational and not threatening as suggested by a few people,” Grover wrote in an email on Monday. “The letters are a pro forma process developed to fully and transparently inform the remaining property owners who refused survey permission of the state law related to the survey process.”

Once again, Judge Rucker may recall Ms. Grover in his courtroom 10 July 2014 as Sabal Trail’s attorneys attempted to get the court to apply the very same O.C.G.A. 22-3-88 used as a threat in all of the above-cited letters from Sabal Trail or its attorneys.

Finally, Sabal Trail has not stopped sending letters to landowners threatening eminent domain, as evidenced by one sent to the Cothrons of Lowndes County.

Please note a pattern of all these letters threatening O.C.G.A. 22-3-88 Georgia eminent domain of shifting allegations of sometimes vague and sometimes explicit court cases that supposedly support those threats.

Is Sabal Trail’s November 2014 claim of MGAG as a Georgia customer a subterfuge to find some way for O.C.G.A. 22-3-88 to apply, as was suggested in the hearing on the present case 24 March 2015?

According to Winnie Wright on WCTV 2 December 2014 in the story "New Sabal Trail Project Has Many South Georgia Residents Worried About Eminent Domain", even MGAG doesn’t believe Sabal Trail has Georgia eminent domain:

MGAG says it has accepted Sabal Trail’s offer for two taps on their pipeline when it’s built, but say they are a long way away from providing that gas to residents of South Georgia.

“Taps do not provide gas in to the state. That would require a meter station in the future, so I’m not an attorney, not involved in Eminent Domain, don’t believe the side taps should have any impact at all on that issue”, says Michael Frey, Chief Operating Officer for MGAG.

While the Michael Frey may not be an attorney, presumably as MGAG Chief Operating Officer he does know that Sabal Trail is "a long way away from providing that gas to residents of South Georgia". Which would seem to mean that Sabal Trail is nowhere near meeting the requirements of O.C.G.A. 22-3-88.

Yet Sabal Trail has repeatedly sent letters to landowners claiming O.C.G.A. 22-3-88 Georgia eminent domain authority, citing a variety of alleged Georgia court cases. So landowners on the proposed path of Sabal Trail’s pipeline throughout Georgia have every reason to suspect that any ruling in Leesburg for eminent domain would be used by Sabal Trail as a further threat. Georgia landowners also have no reason to care what Sabal Trail finds as "imperative" and every reason to defend their own property against this invader from another state.

SpectraBusters, Inc., respectfully asks the court to rule that Sabal Trail did not and does not have any right of Georgia eminent domain under O.C.G.A 22-3-88 or any other Georgia law.

Respectfully submitted,

Alton Paul Burns
For the Board of Directors
SpectraBusters, Inc.
PO Box 3684
Valdosta, GA 31604-3684

Attachments: all the letters cited herein are attached.

SpectraBusters, Inc. to Judge Rucker Smith Case number 14CV208RS , Page 5 of 5

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