“I grew up in Nebraska and lived all over the Midwest,” he said. “When I saw this land, it looked just like home, you know, wide open skies and when the wind blew, the grasses swayed like wheat fields — waves of grain.”
Across a meadow, Mez’s father used a backhoe to dig a pond with an island in the middle. His stepfather, a bridgebuilder, built a suspension bridge over to the island. In the center of the bridge, a big red bolt like the ones used to build the Golden Gate Bridge, is embedded. Both men are gone now, the little park a lasting legacy from them.
Mez hung a swing from the branch of a nearby water oak.
“This is where my family has gathered for years — weddings, reunions, camp outs, Bible studies — all around this old tree,” he said. “Now the folks from TRANSCO want to cut it down.”
In 2014, Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Co. LLC (TRANSCO), a subsidiary of Williams Partners LP in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Atlanta-based Dogwood Enterprise Holdings Inc. announced plans to build the Dalton expansion project — a 112-mile pipeline transporting natural gas to the southeastern United States.
Williams proposed to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which oversees interstate natural gas line construction and operation, cutting a 600-foot swath of land following existing utility corridors.
Williams told FERC that Bartow County’s section of the project would involve about a half mile of 24-inch pipe that would taper to 20-inch pipe for the remaining 24.3 miles.
Shortly after TRANSCO got approval from FERC, representatives from the company showed up at Mez’s house and made an offer. It was a lowball offer and he refused.
“I didn’t want to get any lawyers involved,” Mez said. “But I wanted to get a fair price for what I have. This is an estate; it’s not like a pasture with 100 acres. If there’s a pipeline coming down through the middle, anyone who might be interested in buying it will see it and look elsewhere. We wouldn’t have bought this property if there was a pipeline in the middle of it.”
Mez said the TRANSCO representatives threatened to use eminent domain, which gives power to states, municipalities or certain private corporations to seize property for public use, following financial compensation to the property owner.
“The proposed route meant the tree would have to be cut down,” Mez said. “Williams sent a crew in to survey the property. The first survey sent the pipeline right across the tree so we asked, ‘Is there anyway we can save the tree?’ The surveyors did another survey, this time it saved the tree.”
But Mez soon learned that TRANSCO planned to use the first survey. The tree and the little park seemed doomed.
“That’s just not right,” Mez said. “First they said they would work with me and now they say the tree has to go.”
Tim Denson lives across the road from Mez. He bought 10 acres in 2013. He moved his landscaping business into an old barn that had been rehabbed and added living space for his family.
“I was going to raise cattle and quail,” he said. “I’m in my early 50’s so I planned to retire there and have a place my children and grandchildren could enjoy.”
But TRANSCO came calling with an offer and a threat — sell your property rights or we will take your property via eminent domain.
Denson refused the offer and TRANSCO made good on their threat.
“They showed up at my door with a court order authorizing them to begin work,” he said.
Soon bright orange temporary fencing marked a 60-foot swath right through the middle of his property.
Again the subject of trees was broached. A small grove of oak trees provided a visual barrier from the road.
“I tried to reason with them,” Denson said. “I said put up your fencing and stakes but leave my trees alone. But as soon as I left to go to work, they moved in and cut the trees.”
When he returned, the only thing left of the grove was a big brush pile of felled trees.
Mez and Denson sought legal representation from Don Evans, a Cartersville attorney, who joined with other plaintiffs represented by attorneys Brandon Bowen, Sarah Martin and Robert L. Walker from the Jenkins & Bowen law firm.
“TRANSCO filed an eminent domain suit in district court in Atlanta,” Bowen said. “The judge issued a preliminary injunction allowing TRANSCO to begin work. We appealed the decision to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and won a stay but it was for a limited number of days.”
But TRANSCO brought in heavy equipment and began removing everything in the pipeline’s footprint.
A second motion was filed appealing the district court order that allowed TRANSCO to post only a surety bond instead of a cash bond before gaining immediate access to the property owners’ land. In fact, according to a FERC certificate, TRANSCO filed more than 50 condemnation actions in the district court to exercise the power of eminent domain and take immediate possession of the landowners’ properties although no compensation has been paid.
On Tuesday, a Williams land agent accompanied by a Bartow County sheriff’s deputy approached Mez and assured him the tree will not be harmed, but that seemed to do little to alleviate Mez’s worries.
“I don’t know why they can’t just leave things alone,” he said. “I love these trees. They represent everything my family stands for. They just seemed to be bent on doing everything their way. They have no use for our feelings.”