WV court right to support individual property rights

An editorial from The Herald-Dispatch

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — A ruling this week by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals upheld the spirit reflected in the state’s official motto, Montani Semper Liberi, which is Latin for “Mountaineers are Always Free.”

The decision came in a case involving whether the developers of the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline, which is proposed to run about 300 miles from the northwestern part of the state into Southern Virginia, could survey land for the project without the permission of the property owners. A Monroe County circuit judge had ruled more than a year ago in favor of the property owners, Bryan and Doris McCurdy, who contended that their basic rights would be violated by having surveyors on their property without their permission.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court upheld the circuit judge’s decision, a ruling that seems just and indeed helps preserve individual property rights.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Robin Jean Davis, said there was no proof that the pipeline project would serve any “public use,” a requirement under state law before developers could use eminent domain to force landowners to allow such surveys or take property. “Thus, this case represents exactly the type of private taking for private use that is prohibited,” Davis wrote, according to a report by the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

It’s well-known to all of us that West Virginia is in dire economic shape, and many policy makers are looking to a growing natural gas industry as a ticket out of the economic doldrums. The companies involved in the pipeline project say it would help carry the supply of natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations to markets in the Mid- and South-Atlantic United States.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Menis Ketchum made that very argument – that development of the pipeline would help boost the natural gas industry in the state and benefit its economy.

 But Davis, in the majority opinion, made two important points that we believe justify the court’s decision.

One is that there were no agreements in place that supply gas to any consumers in West Virginia and no “definitive evidence” that any gas producers not affiliated with the pipeline project would benefit from it.

The other was her argument that earlier cases defined a “public use” as not necessarily one in which “the general prosperity of the community is promoted” but as situations where “the general public must have a right to a certain definite use” of the private property that’s being taken by eminent domain. In this case before the court, the general public would not have the right to a certain definite use of the property, which would be the case if the land was being considered for a highway that would serve the general public. In this case, several private companies are seeking privileges that would first and foremost benefit them.

Allowing them to run roughshod over the private property rights of landowners is not in line with the notion that West Virginia, according to its motto, stands for.

See more from The Herald-Dispatch. 

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