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Family OKs use of land for power line

14 August 2009 720 views No Comment

TUCKER COUNTY, W.Va. — The two 120-foot-high voltage transmission towers soon to be built on Denny Pifer’s farm will be as out of place as the old Sycamore tree on the mountaintop.

“We fought it and dragged our feet,” he said of the Trans Allegheny Transmission Line (Trail) project. “But is it fair to make them move it to someone else’s land? We have enough land it isn’t going to completely ruin us.”

Pifer owns the 143-acre farm with Jane, his wife of 47 years, and his brother, Kevin. They are just two of the 23 Tucker County property owners affected by the Trail project. That 500-kV power line, the first of two proposed to run through the area, already has been approved by the state Public Service Commission.

Last year at the public meetings and hearings for Trail, the Pifer brothers voiced opposition to the project. They brought photos of the family farm to the meetings and asked PSC officials and attorneys for Allegheny Power why the line couldn’t be built on public land.

But after a dozen visits and conversations with Zach Palmer, a Trail right-of-way agent, the brothers negotiated a deal and signed two easement options.

“I wouldn’t have wanted a better man to deal with,” Denny said, adding that it was still a tough decision to sign. “We told him we knew he had a job to do but used everything at our disposal to get good money out of him.”

The first option will pay the Pifers $115,000 for about 57.5 acres and the second $60,000 for about 6.6 acres. The option payments were $6,000 and $11,500, respectively, and are good for a 12-month period.

Growing at an altitude of 2,988 feet, the old Sycamore is a landmark on Pifer’s farm. Its crooked and scarred trunk tells the stories of the harsh winds and winters it has endured along with the fence that it once supported.

“They really aren’t supposed to grow up this high,” he said of the altitude. From atop the mountain, Pifer can easily see the 42 windmills on Backbone Mountain and the buildings at Mountain Lake Park near Oakland, Md. On foggy mornings, the small mountaintops look like islands.

“There are a lot of scenic overlooks but not one in several directions,” he said. “Power lines are a necessary evil but you have to have them.”

Originally the old tree was to be removed and a tower built in its place, but Pifer said the concessions made by both sides saved the tree and helped site the towers in a better location.

“Mr. Winters would have had the line within 140 feet of his house and the power company would have had to buy this house,” he said. “They couldn’t change (the route) without moving one of my towers into the woods instead of in the middle of the field.”

Another concession included the location of the access road. Central Construction, the company building the road, was going to build it up above Pifer’s spring.

“But I already had one down below,” he said.
Pifer said the decision to allow Trail project employees on his property for preliminary tests wasn’t easy. But he thinks the cooperation helped him get a better deal.

“Also, if I hadn’t had them on here for preliminary survey I wouldn’t have known where they were going to put the towers,” he said.

He didn’t sign any survey permission form, similar to what PATH right-of-way agents are asking property owners to do.

“I just gave my oral permission for them to do the survey,” he said.

He said the surveying was really “a big deal.” It included siting the towers and line, boring a 6-inch hole looking for artifacts and testing the spring water. He didn’t hire a lawyer to help in the negotiations but did have an appraisal done on his farm.

“I’m fairly confident that we got as much money without a lawyer as we would have if we had a lawyer,” he said noting that he accepted the company’s third offer. “The contract is pretty simple except for the free electricity part.”

The contract offers 12,000 kilowatts of free electricity annually that stays with the land as long as the power line occupies the right-of-way.

“The only kicker is that we can only get free electric in that house,” he said pointing to the house his father was born in and no longer occupies daily. “They also buy the timber off of you they cut, and give it back to you to sell.”

One helpful piece of advice he received and wants to pass on is landowners will need to claim property damage and devaluation in order to pay reduced capital gains tax on the sale of the easement and reduced property taxes.

Tucker County Assessor Butch Burns said the county will lose money because the land will be worth less with the power line on it.

“If landowners want us to we’ll be obliged to reassess their property,” he said. “The noise and view is bound to devalue the land.”

Construction of Trail already has started in Grant County near the Mount Storm power plant. The project is hoping to start constructing towers in Tucker County in September, Pifer said.

“But they may leapfrog to Marion County and work there in the winter,” he said. “This may be the last section built because of the weather.”

He realizes everyone’s situation isn’t the same, but said if landowners work with the officials they have a better chance. He also understands why so many of his neighbors have signs opposing PATH, the new proposed power line.

“This is the farm I grew up on,” he said pointing to the house where he was born 70 years ago. “To some people this is just a piece of ground, but to me this is personal.”
by Kelly Stadelman

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