Orange flags mark the Atlantic Coast Pipeline's path through Richard Averitt's property. (Photo by Peter Rathmell)
Nelson County is home to more than a dozen breweries, distilleries and wineries. The Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail both run parallel to the county’s northwestern border for 30 miles.
The county’s Wintergreen Resort boasts two golf courses as well as numerous ski slopes and hiking trails. For an area littered with tourist attractions, Richard Averitt still thought something was missing.
In 2005, Averitt and his family moved to Nellysford, a small town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains overlooked by the Blue Ridge Parkway and Wintergreen Mountain.
Though Wintergreen Resort is only six miles away, it is near the top of the mountain. Averitt says that he was shocked that the valley did not have its own destination resort.
So in 2013, the Averitts decided to build the Spruce Creek Resort and Market in Nellysford. The plan was to create a boutique natural resort that “focused on celebrating the flora and fauna of [the] area,” he said.
Early on, Averitt says he knew that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s alternate route would cross the resort. But he never believed that Dominion, the company spearheading the multi-million dollar natural gas pipeline, would decide to reroute the project through Nelson County and his property.
That all changed in February 2015 when Averitt received a letter from Dominion demanding access to his property so it could survey the land.
“They said, ‘You are required by law to let us [survey], we’re just letting you know.’ We of course said no. Not even no, hell no, you're not coming on our land,” said Averitt.
The company sued him under a Virginia statute that requires landowners to allow natural gas companies to survey their land. Initially, Averitt won the battle in court by arguing that Dominion had not given him sufficient notice about the survey, he said. But Dominion sued Averitt a second time, and after more than a year in court, the company won. Averitt's property was surveyed in February 2017.
After the survey, Dominion offered Averitt about $13,000 to build the pipeline on his land. Averitt says he burned the letter. The $13,000 easement offer could not compensate for the loss of a $35 million business, he said.
Averitt is one of about 2,000 landowners in West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina who received letters from Dominion, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas or Southern Company Gas about acquiring the rights to build the nearly 600-mile pipeline on private property.
The pipeline, which would stretch from the Marcellus Shale Formation in West Virginia to Hamlet, N.C., is awaiting approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. FERC is expected to release its final environmental impact statement in late June.
For Dominion to build the pipeline on private property, the company needs to provide financial compensation to the landowners, which is known as an easement agreement.
About two-thirds of landowners have accepted easements so far. Landowners that have not yet accepted easement agreements could be subjected to eminent domain, or the seizing of their property by the government.
“Even in cases where eminent domain needs to be used, the landowner is still compensated and compensated fairly. It’s just that instead of that being a mutual negotiation process between us and the landowner, the compensation is determined by the court,” said Aaron Ruby, a spokesperson for Dominion.
Ruby says people opposed to the pipeline are exaggerating the potential negative impacts of the pipeline and ignoring the plethora of benefits that the project will bring to the region. Because the population is growing, so is the demand for public utilities, he said.
“They’re growing because collection utilities are transitioning from coal to cleaner burning natural gas to lower emissions, air quality,” said Ruby. “Natural gas utilities need additional gas to provide home heating for the population and the existing natural gas infrastructure in the region is not able to support any additional economic growth.”
Dominion considered more than 6,000 miles of potential routes and made hundreds of adjustments to avoid environmentally sensitive areas and to minimize damages to landowners along the route, said Ruby.
Many of the current pipelines in the mid-Atlantic region are fully tapped, he said. As the population keeps growing and towns across Virginia and North Carolina try to attract new businesses, it will be impossible for public utilities to supply enough natural gas to meet demand, he said.
Inner City Fund International, a consulting firm hired by Dominion to evaluate the pipeline’s economic benefits, also claims the proposed pipeline would lower the cost of gas and electricity. In total, Virginians whose electricity comes from the pipeline could save $1.3 million each year, the consulting firm said in 2015.
“Each and every energy consumer in Virginia and North Carolina will see the cost savings reflected as a lower natural gas and electric bill,” according to the consulting firm.
Ruby says the pipeline also would stimulate $2.7 billion in economic activity and create 17,000 jobs in West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina.
According to Dominion’s consultants, the average salary of jobs created by the pipeline would be about $64,000 per year. This would add more than $80 million to the state’s economy in wages alone, the consultants said in their study.
Local governments also would collect more than $28 million a year in property taxes from Dominion.
Ruby said counties could use property tax revenues to invest in education, infrastructure or public safety that may not have been affordable before.
The pipeline's potential effect on the Wintergreen Resort, one of the largest businesses in Nelson County, is a major concern for Jon Ansel, president of Friends of Wintergreen.
The proposed pipeline crosses the only entrance and exit to the resort and mountain community, Ansel said. There could be as many as 10,000 tourists and residents on the mountain at any time and if there is an emergency, such as a landslide, all of them would be trapped, he said.
Wintergreen had been planning to expand by building a $40 million hotel, said Ansel. Like the Spruce Creek Resort and Market, Wintergreen’s plans had to be put on hold because of the pipeline. Together, the Spruce Creek Resort and the new Wintergreen Hotel were expected to increase the number of resort service jobs in Nelson County by 25 percent, Ansel said.
The pipeline also would create temporary construction jobs in the area. But residents believe that once construction is finished the number of pipeline jobs in Appalachian Virginia would dwindle.
“It’s kind of like a sugar high. You get that [short-term benefit], and then the construction jobs are going to cease and you’re not going to continue to get that benefit,” said Spencer Phillips, founder of Key-Log Economics, a research firm in Charlottesville.
Construction jobs would make up 93 percent of the positions created while the pipeline is being built, according to ICF, the consulting firm hired by Dominion. Spencer predicted all of those jobs would evaporate in two years.
Jobs created by the pipeline also would come at the expense of local businesses, according to a report Phillips wrote on behalf of Friends of Nelson in early 2016. Phillips said tourism businesses might have to downsize and that some business ventures might need to be set aside, as in Averitt’s case, because of the pipeline’s safety risks and environmental impacts.
Real estate is another possible victim of the pipeline.
A Nelson County real estate broker who has worked in the area for almost 40 years said it is impossible to quantify how the pipeline would affect the housing market. But the broker, who asked not to be identified because he doesn’t want to lose business, said there is no way it would positive.
The broker predicted that houses could decrease between 5 and 15 percent in value. Even a 5 percent slide could result in a $50 million decline in the total value of homes in his area, he said.
“We estimate [property tax revenues] to be close to a million dollars because of the lost property values. That has an impact on the county simply because the county supports things like meals for kids in school,” said Ansel.
Phillips said land with a pipeline wouldn’t be worth as much.
“Because it’s a long-term investment, people are buying not just the roof over your head, but you’re buying how much you enjoy or anticipate enjoying your property,” he said.
Prospective homebuyers also are hesitant to move near pipelines because of safety risks. In his report, Phillips said he surveyed 418 prospective buyers. Three out of five of them said they would not consider buying a home with a pipeline on the property. Only one out of every five buyers said they would not be concerned about a pipeline near their property.
Prices would likely decline as well, according to the Phillips report. The asking price could drop by as much as 21 percent for someone who is concerned about a pipeline, but who still wants to move to the area, the report said.
Building the pipeline also would require contractors to cut down all of the trees within 60 feet the pipeline on either side. Somebody like Averitt would likely see his land value plunge if a 125-foot wide treeless corridor crossed his property.
Averitt says the explosion risk is one of the primary reasons that he does not believe that he can build his resort if the pipeline is approved.
“If you own a project where you’re responsible, and it happens here, you realize that everybody in your resort would be dead. The blast zone is larger than the resort, right? How do you reconcile that? I don’t even know if you can get insurance for that. You sure as hell have a moral obligation you have to think about. So there is no way you can build it,” says Averitt.
Ruby says fears of an explosion are exaggerated and that Dominion knows what it’s doing.
“We have built more than 2,000 miles of above ground pipeline,” he says.
Those assurances aren’t good enough for Averitt.
“There is no Plan B,” he said. “There is no way I can walk out my house, see my land wrecked and not just be a bitter, angry person. There is no Plan B for us.”