Pipeline splits local interests
Rancher at odds with BP, county over pipeline

Keith and Mary Fassbender walk the pipeline route on the land they ranch near the La Plata County Regional Airport. The route, which the couple said they did not endorse, runs thorugh the middle of their 170-acre pasture and could have adverse effects on their sheep ranching operation not to mention the land itself. The Fassbenders own the ag rights to the land, but not the land itself, which is owned by the airport./Photo by Jared Boyd.

by Missy Votel

Construction of a gas pipeline southeast of Durango has stirred up more than just dirt. The 20-inch pipe, which will carry natural gas to a nearby compression facility, crosses a mile of jointly owned land. However, as far as county land codes go, this is uncharted territory, raising a host of concerns over how such situations should be handled in the future and leaving local ranchers frustrated in the meantime.

“We’re kind of at a loss,” said Keith Fassbender, who has ranched the land slated for the pipeline, near the airport along the Florida River, for the last 25 years. “Up until November, we were in the loop, and they were talking to us about a route and damage compensation, and then we didn’t hear anything until July of 2006.”

That was when Fassbender received a letter from BP, who was building the pipeline, that work would begin in September. A few months later, over Labor Day Weekend, the couple was called home from a vacation in Wyoming because workers had arrived to stake the route

– the one they say they had expressly objected to. The route, which in effect runs straight through their sheep pasture and up a wooded hillside, will wreak havoc on their irrigation system, stir up weeds, lead to erosion and disrupt ranching operations for their 600 head of sheep.

“You can finally get stuff to regrow, but some of this stuff will never be the same,” Keith said.

To make matters worse, the Fassbenders soon found they had little recourse. Although they own the agricultural rights to the land, the land itself is actually the property of the La Plata County Regional Airport, which is owned jointly by the city and the county and overseen by the advisory Airport Commission.

The land, known as the Out Run Ranch, as well as 188 adjacent acres, known as the Vaca Roja Ranch, were conveyed to the county in 1982 by its former owner, F.B. Dashner. According to Fassbender, who worked for Dashner starting in 1980, it was Dashner’s wish to never see the land developed. Without the benefit of modern land conservancies, Dashner entered into a special warranty deed with the county with the stipulation that the land could only be used for agricultural purposes and no permanent structures could be built. When Dashner died in 1989, he willed the ag rights to Fassbender and then-wife, Carolyn Watson, who now owns the ag-rights to the Vaca Roja Ranch.

Over the years, the Fassbenders say they have negotiated other times with BP on various issues, ranging from well pads to smaller pipelines. However, this particular negotiation went awry, they say, when they requested monetary damages based upon an average of what their neighbors got, minus the nearly $69,000 BP had already paid the county for damages. The Fassbenders were denied, and likewise, a contract for $8,000/acre for damages that Watson signed and returned to BP was not honored either, they said.

While the Fassbenders said they were given compensation to buy hay to feed their sheep during construction, it was of little consolation to the swath cut through their pasture. “No one wants to accept any responsibility for the route, which gave BP permission to pretty much do anything,” said Mary of the pipeline easement agreement, which was signed by both the city and county managers. “We recognize that people need gas, but there could have been a much less destructive route. We may be sheep farmers, but something doesn’t smell right.”

However, airport officials say they were only acting on what they believe was the true intent of the land deed. According to Don Brockus, spokesman for the La Plata County Airport, when the deed was signed between the county and Dashner in 1982 (the city was added to the deed in 2002), the county was recognized as the fee simple title holder. In laymen’s terms, this means the county has absolute right and control to the property. “We knew (BP) wanted to put a pipeline in, and because we are the fee simple title holders, no one can put a shovel in the ground without our permission,” he said.

Brockus said BP’s negotiations with the Fassbenders were a separate affair all together, and that the subject of routing never came up during the airport’s negotiations with BP. “I have no idea how they route pipelines, and that was not a topic,” he said. “BP brought us a proposal, it was a reasonable proposal, and we accepted.”

“I really don’t know how talks with the Fassbenders broke down,” he concluded. “All we know is that they did.”

Keith Fassbender looks over a copy of the special warranty deed that F.B. Dashner entered into with the county in 1982. As owner of the agricultural rights to the  land, Fassbender believes he should have had a say in the route of the pipleine that will transect it./Photo by Jared Boyd.

A spokesman with BP said he felt the company made a good faith attempt to reconcile differences with the Fassbenders and that all three parties – the airport, BP and the Fassbenders – were in agreement.

“We were under the impression that (Keith Fassbender) may not have been crazy about the chosen route, but he approved,” said BP Spokesman Dan Larson. “There was a general agreement that this right of way would be the best for all involved.”

From that point, Larson said BP entered into the right-of-way agreement with the city/county, which they saw as the rightful owners of the land. “In these cases, you negotiate with the person or entity who owns the land,” he said. “We feel we have a valid right-of-way.”

As for the complaint that the work began when the Fassbenders were powerless to stop it, Larson said they had ample notice that work would begin in September. He also said that work is dictated by contractors’ availability, not surface owners’ schedules.

Nevertheless, he said BP makes every attempt at coming to agreement with landowners and surface owners, adding that BP offered “more than fair compensation” to the Fassbenders. “We’ve had pretty good success sitting down with landowners,” he said.

And regardless of how things played out, Larson said steps will be taken to mitigate once the pipeline is in. “By next spring, they’ll be running their sheep over the top of it,” he said.

But Keith Fassbender isn’t so sure.

“Between rocks being turned up, irrigation and erosion, it’s going to take years to get back to what it was, if ever,” he said.

But, he isn’t putting the onus squarely on BP either. Although his situation is unique, it may not portend well for other surface rights owners in the county, particularly in light of decreased well spacing and proposed development in the HD Mountains Roadless Area.

“If BP is just acting on what the county told them they could do, then the county needs to be more responsible for land management,” he said. “And with even more wells going in the county and the HDs, we need some more awareness on the issue.”

La Plata County commissioner Wally White wholeheartedly agrees, especially as the number of wells, and thus need for larger collection pipelines, will see a marked increase in coming years. “More and more of these 20-inch pipelines seem to be going in,” he said.

And while he asserts that La Plata County is the leader in the state when it comes to property owners’ rights and oil and gas regulations, the pipeline issue has not officially been put on the books.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have any pipeline regulations yet in the county,” White said, adding that new pipeline and gas line regulations are being worked into the county code revision. In the meantime, he said he is seeking answers to the Fassbenders’ questions – as well as his own.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions,” he said. “If the Fassbenders did object to the route, that really disturbs me. These are the kinds of things you don’t want to happen to anybody.” •



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