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Chaffins v. Atlantic Coast Pipeline, LLC

Supreme Court of Virginia

July 13, 2017

CHARLES D. CHAFFINS, ET AL.
v.
ATLANTIC COAST PIPELINE, LLC

         FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF BUCKINGHAM COUNTY Donald C. Blessing, Judge

          PRESENT: Goodwyn, Mims, McClanahan, Powell, Kelsey, and McCullough, JJ., and Millette, S.J.

          OPINION

          WILLIAM C. MIMS, JUSTICE

         In this appeal, we consider whether a natural gas company's notices of intent to enter private property complied with Code § 56-49.01.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         The 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 proposed routes.

         Appellants, 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.

         When 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 § 56-49.01.

         Landowners 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 responsive pleadings.

         The 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.

         II. Analysis

         Landowners 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).

         When 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. ...


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