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Court Interprets Indefinite Utility Easement

Although defendant natural gas company’s right of way over plaintiff’s property did not specify the width or describe a designated cleared area for its natural gas pipelines, the Richmond U.S. District Court interprets the agreement to provide for a 60-foot easement, not the 40-foot easement plaintiff says is available, and grants summary judgment to defendant.

Applying principles articulated in Anderson v. Delore, 278 Va. 251 (2009), and those cases from which it is a direct descendant, plaintiff property owner contends this court should focus on the original intent of the parties to the agreement. He maintains the best evidence of their intent is the dimensions of the original taking, which he claims is approximately 40 feet. Virginia courts typically look to the intent of the parties only when the easement lacks language specifying its purpose. The only evidence of the actual intent of the parties to the easement grant, aside from the document itself, is the deed of conveyance from plaintiff’s predecessors of a parcel to Partridge Hill Company for a residential development. The attached plat clearly depicts a 60-foot easement.

Plaintiff draws heavily on the reasoning of the Supreme Court of Virginia in Good v. Pettigrew, 165 Va. 526 (1936), and Cushman Va. Corp. v. Barnes, 204 Va. 245 (1963). In those cases, the court observed that where the width of a right of way is not specified in the grant, then it is limited to the width as it existed at the time of the grant. This time-honored principle governing construction of deeds is correct in the abstract. The Supreme Court of Virginia, however, appears to have limited the application of this rule to roadway easements with defined widths. Plaintiff’s interpretation of the agreement envisions a static width which is inconsistent with the text of the agreement.

The argument advanced by defendant Columbia, on the other hand, hews closely to the language of the agreement. The agreement entitled its predecessor to lay, maintain, operate and remove a pipe line, or pipelines for transportation of gas, “with the right of ingress and egress to and from and through same.” The agreement also stated the grantee is granted “the right at any time to lay additional lines of pipe approximately parallel to the first line herein provided, upon the payment of the price mentioned for each additional line to be laid.” Columbia argues that since the granting language of the agreement states the specific object or purpose of the easement, its dimensions may be inferred to be that reasonably sufficient for the accomplishment of that object. Clearly, this language contemplates the possible installation of additional pipelines. The width necessary to safely accommodate the additional pipelines would logically be determined at the time of installation, depending on the number installed. Columbia offered expert testimony that a 60-foot easement was necessary not only to safely access parallel natural gas pipelines for inspection and maintenance or replacement, but also to comply with federal regulations.

In the final analysis, this court must conclude that Columbia holds the stronger hand. Its interpretation of the agreement squares with long standing Virginia law and is supported by the admissible evidence. Columbia’s theory of construction is consistent with the limited evidence before this court, as well as the apparent intent of the parties. Even if the original agreement contemplated a 40-foot easement, the plat attached to the deed of conveyance to Partridge Hills, following installation of the second pipeline, clearly reflected a 60-foot easement. Plaintiff’s deed mirrored these decisions.

This court finds that an easement of 60 feet comports with industry standards, complies with federal regulations and is reasonably necessary to safely maintain and service two high pressure natural gas pipelines. The court having found that Columbia has a 60-foot easement, it was entitled to remove encroachments in the easement to safeguard the pipeline. Columbia’s entry on the property therefore was lawful and within the limitations of the grant.

Summary judgment for defendant.

Adamson v. Columbia Gas Transmission LLC (Hudson) No. 3:13cv214, Nov. 13, 2013; USDC at Richmond, Va. VLW 013-3-593, 14 pp.

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