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Natural gas pipeline to cut through family's property again

TURKEY CREEK — Kathryn Dixon sometimes sits in her rocking chair on her back porch and catches cool breezes that sweep through a lowland grove of live oaks and maples. Occasionally, she hears the sounds of lowing cows on a nearby pasture. She used to enjoy the view. Now, she can't sit on her porch without getting angry. Now she sees what happened to that grove, how a 1999 natural gas pipeline project slashed through it, upsetting the delicate ecology and killing many of the trees. And Florida Gas Transmission, or FGT, is back, planning a $2.4 billion project that will place almost 500 miles of additional pipeline next to the one the company laid in 1999. Part of it will go right through the middle of Dixon's 34-acre property, cutting again through those trees. But this time, plans call for the line to run about 100 feet from Dixon's back porch. Construction could begin in June.

"They told me, 'No, we're gone, you'll never see us again,' " Kathryn Dixon said, her voice dropping off as she recalled conversations with gas company officials more than decade ago. "And I believed it. If I used my mind…"

Dixon, 86, lives on the property in what has become a family compound with her husband and adult daughter's family.

"At the very least, they feel duped," said Lisa Wilcox, the Dixons' lawyer.

Clyde and Kathryn Dixon bought the initial 20 acres of their property back in the early 1970s, continually adding onto it over the years. They established a dairy. In the early 1980s, their daughter Suzanne got married, and they set her up in a house out on the back 5 acres.

In 1992, the Dixons moved out of a little farmhouse on the property into a custom-built wood frame home, designed and built by Clyde Dixon himself. And all seemed well.

Fast forward seven years. A land agent from FGT showed up late at night at the Dixons' door, telling Kathryn Dixon about this little project going through the back of their property. The agent told the couple it wouldn't affect them at all, and they didn't need a lawyer, Wilcox said.

FGT, which is part of a larger Houston-based company, was adding onto what would eventually become a 5,000-mile natural gas pipeline that pumps natural gas from Tivoli, a small community in southeast Texas, along the Gulf Coast to South Florida.

The Dixons signed easement papers and, in return, received $3,500. It was compensation for land that could not be improved or used by the Dixons once the pipeline was laid.

They thought that was it. It wasn't.

Construction crews arrived at all hours, rumbling up their dirt driveway. Loud, whirring construction equipment overcast their days. The crews cut fences to get onto the property, which let loose some of the Dixons' cattle.

And the pipeline went down, not at the edge of the property like Dixons thought, but right between their backyard and their daughter's front yard. This dissects their property, decreasing its value and increasing worries of an explosive accident that could destroy either of their houses, according to the Dixons.

"It's your pride to own your home and have your kids nearby," Kathryn Dixon said. "It makes you mad."

In 2008, FGT came back, proposing the additional 36-inch wide pipeline. This time, the easement would take out part of a nursery with 2,500 live oaks in the elder Dixons' backyard. The company offered $50,000 for an acre and a half.

"At that time, I decided to hire an attorney," Clyde Dixon, 86, said.

Legal wrangling ensued. Accusations of dirty dealing flew between both parties. The Dixons spent about $50,000 fighting the case. Wilcox finally won the right for the Dixons to be notified before FGT crews came on site. Finally, the dispute developed into an eminent domain case in November. In February, FGT won the right in Hillsborough County Circuit Court to take part of the Dixons' property for their project.

Florida Gas Transmission spokesman John Barnett said he couldn't speak specifically to the Dixons' case. But he said the company has "worked with a number of landowners, trying to create a route that would have the least impact on homes, the environment and existing structures."

There aren't any specific rules on how close a pipeline can be built next to a home, but the company does try to have a 50-foot right of way, Barnett said. And regular checkups on the line should assuage concerns of an explosion.

"Pipeline transportation is the safest transportation," he said.

Clyde Dixon knows he can't stop the pipeline. But its existence now threatens his homeowner's insurance. Aside from that, he can't develop the property as he wished, which threatens future income. He now just wants fair compensation, a figure he puts at $100,000.

His wife doesn't trust that the company won't try a third time to disrupt her life.

"What are they going to do in another 10 years," she said. "Take another bite out of us?"

Jessica Raynor can be reached at hillsnews@sptimes.com.

Natural gas pipeline to cut through family's property again 03/11/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 10, 2010 5:38pm]
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