CHARLES D. CHAFFINS, ET AL.
ATLANTIC COAST PIPELINE, LLC
THE CIRCUIT COURT OF BUCKINGHAM COUNTY Donald C. Blessing,
PRESENT: Goodwyn, Mims, McClanahan, Powell, Kelsey, and
McCullough, JJ., and Millette, S.J.
WILLIAM C. MIMS, JUSTICE
appeal, we consider whether a natural gas company's
notices of intent to enter private property complied with
Code § 56-49.01.
Background and Procedural History
Atlantic Coast Pipeline, LLC ("ACP") is a public
service company "engaged in the underground storage and
transportation of natural gas in interstate commerce."
As such, it is a "natural gas company, " as defined
by federal law, and subject to the jurisdiction of the
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ("FERC"). 15
U.S.C. § 717 et seq. ACP is seeking FERC's
regulatory approval to build a natural gas transmission line
that would extend from West Virginia to North Carolina,
passing through the Commonwealth. As part of this process,
ACP must conduct surveys, tests, appraisals, and other
examinations upon properties located along the pipeline's
Charles and Linda Chaffins, Michael Huntley, and Beverly
McQuary ("Landowners"), own real property in
Buckingham County along a proposed route. On March 6, 2015,
ACP sent Landowners letters seeking permission to enter their
properties to conduct preliminary surveys and studies. The
letters explained that "[c]onducting these surveys and
environmental studies is required as part of the permitting
process for" the pipeline.
Landowners withheld their permission, ACP provided notices of
intent to enter their properties "on or after April 27,
2015" pursuant to Code § 56-49.01. The notices
explained that Code § 56-49.01 "authorizes certain
natural gas companies to enter upon property, without
permission, for examinations, tests, hand auger borings,
appraisals and surveys." However, rather than enter the
properties at that time, ACP filed petitions for declaratory
judgment against Landowners. It sought an order declaring
that the notices of intent to enter provided ACP with a right
to enter Landowners' properties under Code §
separately demurred. They argued, in part, that by only
stating that the entry would occur "on or after April
27, 2015, " the notices failed to "set forth the
date of the intended entry" as required by Code §
56-49.01(C). The circuit court overruled the demurrers,
finding "no flaw in the notification process that's
taken place, " and ordered that Landowners file
case proceeded to a hearing on the merits of ACP's
petition, wherein the circuit court again heard argument on
the sufficiency of the notices. In concluding that ACP's
notices provided a right to enter Landowners' properties,
the court reasoned that the word "intended" in Code
§ 56-49.01(C) suggests that the notices need only
provide a "hope[ful]" date of entry that "may
have to change" depending on "weather, workloads on
other properties or so forth." Accordingly, on April 13,
2016, the circuit court issued a final order holding that ACP
was entitled to enter Landowners' properties pursuant to
Code § 56-49.01. We granted Landowners this appeal.
maintain on appeal that by only stating the entry would occur
"on or after April 27, 2015, " ACP's notices of
intent to enter failed to "set forth the date of the
intended entry" as required by Code § 56-49.01(C).
ACP responds that the statute does not require notices to
provide dates certain upon which the entry will occur, but
rather only the date of "intended, " or planned,
entry. This argument presents an issue of statutory
interpretation, which we review de novo. Conyers v.
Martial Arts World of Richmond, Inc., 273 Va. 96, 104,
639 S.E.2d 174, 178 (2007).
construing a statute, our primary objective is to ascertain
and give effect to the legislative intent, which "is
initially found in the words of the statute itself."
Crown Cent. Petroleum Corp. v. Hill, 254 Va. 88, 91,
488 S.E.2d 345, 346 (1997). "[I]f those words are clear
and unambiguous, we do not rely on rules of statutory
construction." Id. However, "consideration
of the entire statute . . . to place its terms in context to
ascertain their plain meaning does not offend [this] rule
because 'it is our duty to interpret the several parts of
a statute as a consistent and harmonious whole so as to
effectuate the legislative goal.'" Eberhardt v.
Fairfax Cnty. Emples. Ret. Sys. Bd. of Trs., 283 Va.