St. Charles County wanted to widen a road, which required moving the gas line within the right-of-way of Pittman Hill Road. Pittman Hill Road was created by subdivision plats which designated the road’s right-of-way as a utility easement for gas lines (among other utilities), dedicating the entire right-of-way to the public.
The County asked Laclede Gas Company to pay for the relocation of its gas lines to the right-of-way of the reconstructed road. Laclede claimed that this amounted to an unconstitutional taking of its property. On a motion for summary judgment, the trial court ruled for the County, requiring Laclede Gas to pay for the relocation. Laclede appealed directly to the Missouri Supreme Court.
On appeal, the County made four objections:
- The County’s complete power over the public road means that the County doesn’t have to pay the costs of moving Laclede’s gas lines located within the County’s road.
- Under a statute (section 445.070.2 RSMo) that provides that areas of plats that dedicated to the public convey the dedicated areas to the local government (such as the town or city, or in this case, the County), the County owns the gas lines already. So Laclede would have to pay for placing the new lines.
- Laclede’s easement rights are subordinate to the County’s ownership, because the dedication of the right-of-way to the public pre-dated the installation of the gas lines.
- The primary objective of the subdivision plats was to establish a public roadway, because the road dedication language on the plats came before the utility easement dedication, if you read from top to bottom. Somehow, this means that that the gas lines are somehow less important.
From the text of the Supreme Court’s decision, these four points barely seem plausible, leaving the reader to wonder how the trial court was able to rule for the County. You can get a better sense of the County’s arguments by going to the Missouri Supreme Court’s website and reading the briefs of the parties and listening to the oral argument. You can also see that a trade association for utilities and the Missouri Municipal League, which is a “trade” association of city governmental bodies, filed “friend of the court” briefs, indicating the importance of this suit.
The Missouri Supreme Court easily dispensed with all four of the County’s objections, focusing on Laclede’s vested property right represented by the easement. Citing a U. S. Supreme Court decision and a 1933 decision of the Missouri Supreme Court, the court ruled:
Although an easement does not vest title, an easement is a form of private property that can be taken only upon paymente of just compensation…Becuase an easement is subject to the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment, the general rule is that when a utility’s right to construct and maintain its utility equipment is premised upon an easement, the utility is not responsible for the costs of relocating its equipment.
Rather than the ratepayers of Laclede Gas having to pay for the relocation of gas lines, the taxpayers will pay. County roads are financed from property taxes and other sources, so those who pay will not necessarily be those who use the gas lines to be relocated.
The cost of relocating gas lines will be a part of the equations used in determining how St. Charles County spends its road money. This cost could be enough to make a County defer the widening of a heavily traveled road.
- Christopher DiPompeo ’04, econ, Clerking for Supreme Court Justice (umbcalumni.wordpress.com)