We didn’t think much about that gas pipeline when we fell in love with Little Piney. Pre-purchase, I researched water quality, pine beetles, floodplain, history of the land, and more. For some reason, the pipeline marked with yellow posts on the land and with little “PL’s” across the survey, didn’t get much of our attention. Little did we know that 3 years later the 60-year-old pipeline would cause so much trouble.
A Sixty-year-old Pipeline
Even when the landman contacted us last summer to say that the old pipeline would be replaced, it seemed like a manageable inconvenience. We gave them permission to survey our land and even to use Little Piney to access the easement on both sides of our land. The young surveyor I met was polite and friendly. He showed interest in protecting tree roots and boring under instead of trenching through the field. It all sounded easy.
So skip to this summer. We got word that the work was actually scheduled to begin. The land man who contacted us seemed warm and friendly on the phone, but for the first time we heard the term “blanket easement.” I met with the site supervisor, Joe, and we talked at length about the project. We talked about trees, access, and schedules. Again, the term “blanket easement.” Both men expressed care and concern for our land and our towering loblolly pines, at the same time telling me that with a blanket easement they had the right to be anywhere and do anything they needed to do on my property. I felt very uneasy. What I heard was that I was at their mercy so I should be grateful for whatever care they took of my trees and my land. I asked the land man if that was indeed what they were trying to say. He didn’t confirm it directly, but didn’t deny it either.
To make matters worse, Joe told me they planned to use Little Piney as a staging point for boring under the adjacent land on one side and under the creek on the other. Then they planned to trench through our field which meant ripping into the roots of pine trees from 80-200 years old. Heavy equipment would enter through our cranky, old gate and dirt driveway, cut ruts through our sandy fields, and be stored here, They would be there for 3 weeks coming and going, up to six vehicles per day. The desire to save our trees gave way to no guarantees. They dismissed my concern about wear and tear on the gate and the driveway. It was clear that they would do whatever was required to make the work fast, safe, and cost effective. They would repair damage that was evident when they were done but would not be responsible for anything that came up after they left.
I asked the land man, for a copy of the easement, which I had never seen, and was told it would take some time to find it. I went to the courthouse and followed deeds back to the 40’s when Little Piney was part of Camp Swift and could find no record of the easement. For a few days, I let myself hope that they were bluffing, but they weren’t. The 1934 grant for the pipeline landed in my inbox, and it placed no limits on their access or any activities related to the pipeline. At first I wasn’t sure it was describing our property because it used lot numbers from an a old divided tract. Then, on the second morning at the courthouse I found a map a from the 30’s that placed those lot numbers exactly where Little Piney sits on Piney Creek today.
When I got back to Little Piney that day I was shocked to see survey stakes not in the easement but running right through the adjacent grove of trees. I called Joe who came over with his co-supervisor, Jeremy, to explain. He said all of the trees in that area would be removed. He kept telling me “that’s where the pipeline is.” I kept telling him that his pipeline had to be in the existing easement, and there was no way it was under those old trees. I’m still not sure what he meant. I told Joe and Jeremy to leave, and withdrew permission to enter my property. They could talk to my attorney but they were not touching my trees. I was enraged.
Fortunately, a friend had done some legal research for me and found case law that overrode the blanket easement in certain situations. This case said that a new easements could not be created without the landowners permission. One attorney told me that the law wouldn’t apply to us, and another said it might. Either way, a judge would have to decide, and that would hold up the pipeline. I called the landman. He represents the pipeline company and works with the landowners to smooth the way for the engineering company to lay the pipeline with as little conflict as possible. I told him about the new survey. He repeated his usual line about safety and regulations being the priority. I insisted that they could not move the easement without my permission, and mentioned the possibility of involving an attorney. He said, “Let’s not get attorneys involved. Let me see what I can find out.” At 7 pm that evening, a Friday, he called to say that the VP of the company had directed the site supervisors to move the pipeline back into the existing easement–out of my trees.
As I waited for the new survey to happen, I had absolutely no trust that it would. I requested something in writing that would confirm what he said, but my emails were not answered. I worried whenever I was not on the property that they might come in and cut the trees. I priced security guards, and slept poorly. Joe was willing to cut down these trees that were there before he was born, and should be there long after to save a little bit of time and money. I no longer believed he would make any effort to protect the trees from root trauma, soil compaction, or being hit by equipment. I felt vulnerable, angry, fearful. They tried to bully me and manipulate me, and I decided to do whatever I could to fight back. I had to ask for help, and when I did I found people who were generous and helpful in so many ways.
Help from Friends, Family, and New Friends
An attorney who had a case with a similar situation gave me a very helpful free consultation. He is currently on standby if I need to hire him. An extremely kind and knowledgeable, arborist, Vince Debrock of Heritage Tree Care came out and helped me come up with a plan to protect the trees as much as possible. A friend called and offered to “tree sit” while I went to work. I called Kathy McAleese, and she put the word out to Lost Pines Master Naturalists on Monday for help installing the protective fencing Vince recommended. The next day Kathy arrived with two women I had never met– Audrey Ambrose and Judy Edwards. They came with t-posts and tools and worked for almost three hours in the heat. We pounded in posts and wrapped them with bright orange construction fencing completing two large areas of critical root zone protection. They are strong, skilled, knowledgeable, and fun to work with, and I was very touched by their kindness and help.
That morning we created a safety zone for largest tree at Little Piney. After measuring this tree, Vince (the arborist) called Gretchen Riley of the Texas A& M Forest Service to see if it might be the largest loblolly pine in Texas. Gretchen says it might very well be, and she is coming out to measure for herself later this month.
The next day, I sent out an email to my children and step-children asking for help on Saturday morning. Those who could showed up early and ready to work. I felt very loved and supported. With seven of us pounding in posts and attaching the fencing, we finished installing 800 feet of protection on each side of the easement in about two and a half hours.
Advice About Pipeline Easements
I have heard a lot of advice during this process. Most people said there was nothing I could do, that pipeline companies always get their way. I was told to cooperate and hope for the best. I think the pipeline companies get property owners to give up with an implied message of “It will go better for you if you cooperate.” I just couldn’t do that. It made me feel like a victim to submit to their bullying. I don’t know if that fence around my trees will remain standing, or if they will decide to move the survey again and bulldoze it down, but I feel better having done what I can–with a lot of help–and continuing to do what I can to protect those beautiful old trees.
Blanket Easement–Know Your Rights
I also want to share this message about easements. If you buy a property with a blanket easement, that’s the best time to negotiate a new agreement with the owner of the easement.. Most companies will update the contract at that time. If there is no easement boundary marked on your survey or attached to your deed where an easement obviously exists, you are missing important information like we were, and the title company and surveyor should research that for you.
Work will begin soon on the pipeline at Little Piney. I’ll keep you posted.