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Legal challenge slows rural broadband plans in Virginia

A Rappahannock Electric Cooperative employee strings fiber optic cable.
A Rappahannock Electric Cooperative employee strings fiber optic cable.(Rappahannock Electric Cooperative)
Published: Sep. 15, 2021 at 8:51 AM EDT|Updated: Sep. 16, 2021 at 7:45 AM EDT
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Supporters call it a commonsense way to get broadband internet into more homes in rural Virginia. A Culpeper County couple calls it an unconstitutional infringement on their property rights.

The fight, which has already halted a $600 million broadband expansion project, does not appear to be going away anytime soon.

At issue is a 2020 law allowing electric and communications utilities to string fiber along their existing poles, lines and conduit — an extensive network of infrastructure that already cuts through the far-flung mountains, fields and woodlands where the state is hoping to get residents and businesses hooked up to high-speed internet by 2024.

The legislation allows the utility companies to sidestep the trouble and expense of negotiating with property owners along the routes, who otherwise would be entitled to compensation for the additional use of their property, even if it’s just a new strand of wire on a pole that’s been there for decades.

The law passed with near-unanimous, bipartisan support, but when the Rappahannock Electric Cooperative attempted to invoke the provisions, it got hit with a lawsuit by the owners of a farm in Culpeper County, John and Cynthia Grano.

The land, where the couple raises horses and cattle, is bisected by two electric transmission lines and one local distribution line. It is also home to one electric substation.

“This is a corporate greed issue,” said John Grano in a phone interview, arguing utilities are taking advantage of widespread support for broadband expansion to eliminate a business cost at the expense of landowners. “We can’t get so caught up with the progress that we allow the government to start to trample over property owners.”

Grano said he was open to negotiating a fair price with the cooperative when they approached him last year offering $5,000. But he said the talks ended when the company noted that under the new law, they would not have to offer him any compensation when it went into effect in July.

The cooperative, which unsuccessfully sought to have the case dismissed in federal court, did not respond to an email seeking comment. But in a news release earlier this year, they said the lawsuit had prompted them to drop plans for what they described as a $600 million residential broadband initiative.

“The inability for REC to use its existing rights-of-way (easements) would dramatically impact the planned broadband project’s financial feasibility,” the member-owned cooperative wrote. “This federal lawsuit illustrates the need for policymakers and courts to provide clarification of the laws and policies needed in order for cooperatives and others to be able to facilitate solutions that will bridge the digital divide.”

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.(Virginia Mercury)

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

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