Giant sections of the Mountain Valley Pipeline washed onto an opponent’s land. Can he keep them?

Giant sections of the Mountain Valley Pipeline washed onto an opponent’s land. Can he keep them?
Photos provided by the Angle family show a piece of the pipeline that washed into his field and erosion during heavy rain on Thursday.

Dale Angle has something the developers of the Mountain Valley Pipeline want: two 80-foot sections of their pipe that washed onto his Franklin County farm during last week’s heavy rains.

And despite receiving two rather insistent phone calls seeking permission to come on his land and collect the property, he says he’s “not too anxious to be in a hurry about helping them.”

In fact, he says he’s not sure he’ll ever willingly hand it over.

“I’m still mulling that over,” he told Virginia Mercury, citing concerns about the heavy equipment required to retrieve it damaging his land.

It’s easy to appreciate why he might not have a lot of love for the company: First, they used eminent domain to take a strip out of the center of his farm for the project. Then, he says, they damaged his wheat field while preparing for construction. Then, their construction site sent streams of eroding earth onto his property.

Through it, he says the company, which didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment, has been anything but easy to work with.

“These people have intimated, bullied and everything under the sun during this whole project,” he says. “Instead of communicating with the property owners, they’ve bulldozed people. It’s not a pleasant situation.”

But can he legally keep the pipe?

Experts say probably not.

It’s a lot like when a child’s wayward ball goes over a neighbor’s fence. There is no finders-keepers doctrine as long as the property has an owner.

“The pieces of the pipeline are still the pipeline firm’s property,” says Nathan Richardson, who teaches at the University of South Carolina Law School. “It doesn’t matter for purposes of who owns them that they ended up on someone’s land.”

But it isn’t necessarily a sure thing, said Molly Brady, a UVA School of Law professor specializing in eminent domain. In some cases, she said courts have given property owners permission to retrieve their belongings but not always, “depending on the personal property owner’s responsibility for the object ending up where it did.”

“Back in the 1800s and early 1900s, this used to happen with floods that would send objects careening onto others’ property; there are a few cases from other states about cut logs for lumber ending up on dry land or pieces of a bridge washing onto neighboring private property,” she said in an email.

(In the case of the bridge, one landowner repurposed it to build a house, fence and mill, she said – “not exactly allowed when the bridge owner wanted them back.”)

Brady said she doesn’t know enough to weigh on Angle’s case. Richardson, meanwhile, doubts it would end up in court.

“If necessary, the pipeline company files legal action to get the property back,” he said.

“In reality, I can’t imagine it would actually be litigated. If the parties really don’t get along, a third party (a lawyer, or the police) might escort the retrieval crew. To return to your analogy, Dad might have to go knock on the neighbor’s door.”

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.