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Gas ‘Goliath’ Wins Victory Over ‘Local Davids’ on Tree Cutting

CINCINNATI (CN) - A gas company had the right to clear an 80-foot swath of trees on an Ohio couple's property in order to maintain its pipelines, despite having ignored the easement for more than 60 years, the 6th Circuit ruled. The three-judge panel characterized property owners Donald and Jill Andrews as "local Davids" taking on an "out-of-state corporate Goliath," but said it would take more than a stone to shake this giant's firm legal footing.

Columbia Gas, as successor to Ohio Fuel Gas Co., inherited a 1947 easement to lay two pipelines on the Andrews' property, and "to maintain, operate, repair, replace and remove" those lines.

The Andrews bought their rural house in Licking County in March 2000, with full knowledge of the 1947 easement. They said they were drawn to the property because of the hillside landscaping and the pine trees, which the gas company had left alone since their planting in the late 1960s.

In fact, Columbia Gas made no efforts to clear a right of way around its pipelines until June 2004, when a work crew told Donald Andrews that it needed to remove a stand of pine trees on his property.

The Andrews claimed that decades of inaction caused the gas company to waive its easement, because Columbia Gas effectively "acquiesced" to the trees. The couple also challenged the magistrate judge's decision to establish a 50-foot right of way for each pipeline, when the 1947 agreement never specified the width of the easement. Columbia Gas had no right to clear 25 feet on one side of each pipeline and the 30 feet between the lines, the Andrews claimed.

However, the appellate court concluded that the 50-foot right of way for each pipeline was "reasonably necessary and convenient."

"If the agreement granted such a right of way," McKeague wrote, "Columbia Gas was not obligated to give specific reasons for acting within its rights." Under Ohio law, the owner of an easement can remove objects that "unreasonably interfere with or obstruct its reasonable or proper use."

The court added that Columbia Gas never forfeited this right, despite years of inaction.

"(T)he fact that the company did nothing ... is not fatal," McKeague wrote.

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