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Standing your ground in the face of eroding property rights.

COUNTRYSIDE: I love your magazine; it is the best subscription I have ever had. I live in an area of Arkansas where the race is on to extract natural gas. SEECO has been harassing me since September to sign a permit allowing them to use explosives to explore for natural gas on my land. I have refused to sign this permit, since they withheld information and used deception and threats to obtain my signature on the original lease. I told them I would not sign another paper for them and I told them why.

They have continued to harass me. I have had to deal with four different people from SEECO. They use the same lines and techniques, in the same order as the original guy did. They have insulted me with their comments and techniques. I made a mistake with the first lease; I do not intend to repeat that mistake.

I have abided by the original lease, and I have given them access to my land when they requested it. But they continued to harass me to sign the new permit. Then, one Saturday morning I was served with a restraining order and lawsuit requesting the court to make me pay for their delays and other expenses. The hearing was set up for Thursday. I spent the weekend trying to contact my lawyer.

They arrived on my property on Sunday with the protection of the sheriffs department. Again, let me state that I have always given them access when they asked. My lawyer's schedule conflicted with the Thursday hearing so he has been trying to work with their lawyer to change the date. The last I heard from my lawyer was around noon on Monday when he sent me an e-mail to "stand by, I will call as soon as I talk with Paul." (Paul is SEECO's lawyer.) I have "stood by" for two days now. I have not been out on the farm doing the chores that need to be done. SEECO has done what they wanted to do. SEECO's agents have been very deceitful and have made false claims. I am getting very frustrated. Do any of you guys have any suggestions on what I should be doing to defend my rights and my homestead?

Any help/advice you can give me would be very much appreciated. By the way, I am a single female and am trying to set up a small organic dairy farm. I've been stressed enough with all the legal issues with that, and now this added stress is about to wear me out.--Janet Russenberger, Arkansas

Janet's story struck a chord here at COUNTRYSIDE, SO we contacted her to get some background.

Janet Russenberger bought her little piece of Arkansas heaven in February of 2001 and went to work building her homestead. By the following winter, she had built a barn with a studio apartment. She moved in, but the accommodations were temporary. Janet continued to work on her permanent home, a foam-form, partially earth-sheltered design. She moved out of the barn and into her new, energy efficient home in May of 2005 amid ever-growing pressure from SEECO, a privately-owned energy company, to grant them access to her property.

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In Janet Russenberger's part of the country, it is customary for generations of landowners to sign leases giving energy companies access to land and mineral rights. When Janet asked her parents about signing these leases, they told her they had done so every five years for as long as they had owned their land. They signed the lease and collected the payment, just like everyone else. Janet, still reluctant to sign, held out for awhile, but in the end she agreed to let SEECO have access to her property to drill for natural gas. The old adage "give them an inch, and they will take a mile" is especially poignant here, because SEECO wasn't finished with Janet Russenberger. Now that they had access, they wanted something else: privacy.

The original lease that Janet signed gave SEECO personnel unfettered access to her property. She assumed that they would want to enter her property from the west, where the road was and where there was ease of access. This point of entry brought work crews right past Janet's house in the hill. What happened next bewildered her, "It's almost like they didn't want me to know when they were on my property or to see what they were doing."

The company demanded immediate access from the eastern boundary of Janet's property, considerably more rugged territory, requiring her to open and close pasture gates to allow the work crews to pass. Nevertheless, she complied, for all the good it did her. She received a call one morning to open the gates on the east side. After she opened the gates, the work crew stalled, claiming they couldn't enter because they had misplaced a computer program and had to stay put until a replacement computer program could be found. (It didn't make sense to Janet either.) They wasted a good portion of the morning just sitting around before entering the property. The incident frustrated Janet so badly that the next time they called demanding entry from the east, she just opened the gate and left, asking them to close it behind them. Two weeks later, SEECO filed a complaint in circuit court claiming Janet was harassing the work crews and not allowing them to pass. They received a restraining order against her. Janet cannot be anywhere near the east entrance to her property when SEECO contractors are entering or leaving. She has no idea who is on her property, what they are doing there, or how many hours a day they spend there.

[ILLUSTRATIONS OMITTED]

But wait, just like a bad infomercial, there's more. Now SEECO wants seismic privileges on Janet's property. Specifically, they want the right to bury explosives anywhere on her property and detonate them whenever they see fit. Obviously, Janet has a problem with this; her home is built into the side of a hill, and despite assurances from SEECO representatives that the explosives won't damage her foundation, and they will stay 400 feet away from her home, she is refusing to give them the permission they request. She's worried about damage to her home, the possibility of ground water contamination, and the effects of the blasting on her animals.

Since Janet won't sign, SEECO has turned to the courts, asking them to override Janet's rights as a property owner and allow them to blow up her property. "I feel alone. It's my house, my farm," she tells COUNTRYSIDE.

But Janet is not alone, far from it. Across the country, landowners are being bullied by big energy and big government. In Rifle Branch, West Virginia, a number of homes suffered blasting damage during a mining procedure known as "mountain top removal," even though owners were assured by company representatives that the explosives wouldn't affect their homes. Others had their wells contaminated by the explosives. Landowners in the Midwest saw eminent domain laws used to take their property for a new power line. A rush towards green energy investment has left rural landowners to fend off abuses from wind-farm operators. No, Janet is not alone. In fact, we suspect she is in very good company.

If you have had an experience similar to Janet's, write to us here at COUNTRYSIDE; share your situation, your insights and how you coped. We've asked Janet to keep in touch. We'll keep you updated on her situation.
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Title Annotation:Country neighbors
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2008
Words:1261
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