Karen M. Stemland

Karen M. Stemland
Of Counsel

Recently, in Columbia Gas Transmission, LLC v. Grove Ave. Developers, Inc., the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia considered whether a developer’s proposed road would interfere unreasonably with an easement benefiting two under-ground high-pressure natural gas pipelines. The developer had designed a 26-foot asphalt road to cross over the pipelines to service a planned 17-unit housing development. The easement language permitted the developer to “fully use and enjoy the premises, subject to the right of the [easement holder] to maintain and operate said line or lines.”

Claim of Easement Interference

The easement holder, Columbia Gas Transmission, LLC (“Columbia”), argued that the road crossing would interfere unreasonably with its easement, which included the right to “lay, maintain, operate and remove a pipe line or pipe lines.” Columbia contended that the weight of the road’s crossing vehicular traffic would risk the integrity of the pipelines without costly mitigation measures. Columbia further argued the road adversely would impact Columbia’s ability to access and repair the pipelines.

Evidence and Expert Testimony

The court analyzed the evidence by focusing narrowly on the impact of “this specific road, in this specific place, built in the specific manner proposed.” The court considered evidence from both parties regarding the risk of added weight from traffic, known as the “wheel-load risk.” The experts used the same calculation for “wheel-load risk,” but input different numbers for soil weight. Though Columbia’s expert used high numbers for soil weight, the developer’s expert failed to provide actual soil data to refute Columbia’s conservative numbers.  Actual soil data would have been important because the easement analysis is case-specific and narrow; it is not categorical to roads generally. Largely due to the developer’s failure to specifically refute Columbia’s soil data and “wheel-load risk,” the Court found Columbia’s expert more compelling.

The Ruling and Injunction

The court ruled that the developer’s proposed road over the pipelines would interfere unreasonably with the pipeline’s easement rights. The proposed road unreasonably impaired the safe maintenance and repair of the pipelines, largely due to the weight of traffic. The court granted an injunction against the building of the road without first paying for mitigation measures, including excavation and installation of flowable fill in order to mitigate the risk to the pipelines due to the increased burden of vehicular weight.

The Lesson for Developers

This case highlights the importance of analyzing easement disputes in a narrow and case-specific manner. If the developer had focused on the specifics and obtained actual soil data to challenge Columbia’s conservative numbers, the “Court’s conclusion regarding ‘unreasonable interference’ may have been starkly different.” Developers should provide case-specific and detailed evidence, rather than relying on generalities, in contesting allegations of easement interference.

If you have questions about easements or other land use issues, Karen Stemland and our Real Estate and Land Use team are ready to help.