Power to the People: Land Rights

Power to the People: Land Rights
(Source: WMBF News)
(Source: WMBF News)

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - Santee Cooper can come onto your property. Eminent domain gives state agencies the right to take private property for public use, as long as the landowner is compensated. Because South Carolina runs Santee Cooper, it's entitled to practice eminent domain. But before that can happen, the utility company has to get a survey and an appraisal of the land.

"The reason we didn't sign is we really don't want the line to come through our property," said Martha Ann Johnson, one of the dozens of property owners who would be impacted by the Marion to Red Bluff Santee Cooper transmission line.

Johnson is clear about one thing, she's tired of losing land to the State of South Carolina.

"Santee Cooper is through three of our farms now," she said. "We're farmers this is where we make our living."

Johnson didn't sign to allow Santee Cooper to survey the land, so she became one of the property owners Santee Cooper took to court. A judge signed an order allowing the power company to survey and appraise the land. He signed it ex parte, meaning Santee Cooper was represented, but the landowners were not.

"The statute says the condemner must give the landowner reasonable notice of what they intend to do," said State Representative Jeff Johnson of District 58. "I can't speak for a public utility, but my understanding of the statute is the reasoning is the landowner already has notice of what's going on, already sent letters, may have gone out there and spoken to them."

Representative Johnson says the purpose of an order like this one is to get a project moving, avoiding getting held up in court.

Santee Cooper says it did its part.

According to a statement from the utility, "When property owners refuse to grant access, state law allows an ex parte request for entry to be made to the court… This request to the court is used as a last resort."

While Santee Cooper followed the law, Representative Johnson says the process could have still involved the landowners.

"It may be a quick hearing," he said, "but they'll have the opportunity to be there and be heard, which they haven't had that so far."

Landowner Carolyn Gobbel is frustrated by the process.

"You think you own something," she said, "you take care of it, you think it's yours, but it's not, because some large company can come in because of their convenience, because it is convenient to them, and they can take your property and do what they will."

Gobbel wants the judge to see it from her perspective. "I would say, would you sign the order for them to go through your property? Would you sign the order for that? Does this not concern you, and you only see one side and this does not concern you or your family?"

While it's a difficult pill to swallow for some of the landowners, Representative Johnson says he understands its necessity.

"Until they go onto the property, they're merely looking at aerial maps," he said. "When you actually walk property, sometimes it's different than what it looks like from an aerial view."

The court order says Santee Cooper can get help from the Horry County Sheriff's Office to get on to the property. The utility says, "law enforcement assistance is only requested if a property owner refuses to obey the order of the Court."

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