Thursday, April 19, 2012

Standing By Her Land

Rancher who would rather keep
the pipeline out is generating
renewable energy. 
As reported on Marketplace, Texas rancher Julia Trigg Crawford finds herself distracted from her livestock these days as she has become embroiled at a very local scale in a dispute of continental and even global proportions.

The Keystone XL pipeline has many foes and supporters who are primarily focused on continent-scale questions of energy production, jobs, and the protection of ground water, or on global-scale questions of climate change.

Her situation -- literally, her property's position relative to the resources and markets involved -- has drawn her into a legal battle over imminent domain. Although many people think of property rights as all-inclusive, they are in fact quite divisible. A deed to a piece of land conveys a "bundle" of rights, some of which may be sold, leased, forfeited, or otherwise modified. An easement is the specific waiver of certain rights, usually on a part of a piece of property, and quite often for the specific purpose of movement across the property. Sidewalks and powerlines are examples of appurtenant easements that allow for specific activities or structures to be in place on what is otherwise private property. In coastal areas, an easement might be nothing more than a path to the beach.

Certain kinds of public and private infrastructure projects cannot be built without easements, as it would be prohibitively expensive to buy all of the land that they cross. Instead, easements define minimally the property rights that are needed to build and maintain the structure or movement. The imminent domain process requires land owners to provide these easements -- or in some cases the entire property -- if it is deemed necessary to complete a project that is in the public interest.

The courts have made it very difficult to resist the imminent-domain process once it has been started, mainly because without this authority, the objections of a single property owner could derail (sometimes literally) projects benefiting thousands or even millions of other people. The law does require that people be compensated for the partial or complete loss of their property rights, but preventing the loss itself is rarely an option.

Crawford believes the pipeline would make her property much less valuable, and would love to stop it. Understanding that this is quite unlikely, she is seeking compensation for the decline in property value that she anticipates.

My own family happens to have experience with imminent domain. I once lived inside the red box on this map, and my father grew up there. His family built two houses on the property, which they had purchased from a relative in the 1940s. Land and easements along US 50 were taken as the road widened, and a strip along the northern edge was taken as part of a buffer zone when Dulles Airport was built. This was a compromise, as the original declaration would have taken the whole property. The presence of a small cemetery at the church next door helped to forestall outright seizure at that time. Around 1990, however, this cloverleaf was constructed, and my family's property was a classic example of a linchpin in the whole project. Keystone XL project directors view the Crawford property in much the same way.
Explore on Google Maps
Looking at the map of this area in more detail, I noticed that the word "Illinois" appears (just to the east and west of the screenshot above), even though this segment of U.S. 50 is in Virginia. I had never heard of this designation, but it seems likely that Illinois has sought to dissociate itself from the name by which the highway is known in Virginia, where it serves as a memorial to two Confederate generals. 

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