Tree-sitters remain as judge delays decision on Franklin County family

A federal judge decided not to rule Friday on another pipeline protest case

ROANOKE, Va. – Another local family is now awaiting a judge’s decision after there were more arguments in federal court Friday over whether a judge should find landowners in contempt of court.

Mountain Valley Pipeline representatives defended their motion that a judge should hold four Franklin County landowners accountable for tree-sitters in the pipeline’s projected path, which goes through their property.

The four people facing a civil contempt of court charge were in the courtroom of the Poff Federal Building Friday: Carolyn Reilly, her husband Ian and her parents, Dave and Betty Werner. 10 News shared their story last Monday.

Judge Elizabeth Dillon said she would not issue a ruling Friday. As of the end to court proceedings Friday, she also has not released a decision for the Tuesday hearing for members of the Terry family in Roanoke County.

Friday’s arguments had some similarities to the case against the Terrys, which have two tree-sitters on their land. It centers around the same contempt charges and includes discussion of people who are in the way of pipeline construction.

There are differences, however. Crews haven’t started clearing trees yet on the stretch of land on the Reilly’s Franklin County farm MVP obtained through an easement, and the family members’ lawyers argued that they don’t know the tree-sitters and didn’t help them.

The defense argued that because the landowners don't know who the tree-sitters are, they can't be obstructing and they don’t have an obligation to remove the sitters from their property.

The tree-sitters, whose identities are still unknown to the court, are on three covered platforms around 75 feet in the air. They got to the platform using a rope system and could be rotating in and out, taking shifts.
There were some contentious moments between the Reillys and MVP lawyers when the defendants testified. Judge Dillon had to reiterate that the witnesses needed to answer questions asked of them and she had to ask those in attendance to be quiet after audible laughter when an MVP lawyer said, "MVP is not trying to silence anyone."

"We have deep ties to the land and we can say that we are glad that people are taking a stand for the land,” Carolyn Reilly said. "We've not impeded any bit of their progress whatsoever and we will continue to speak up.”

The family’s defense team said it’s optimistic.

“We feel good about today. These landowners, they're going to continue to fight in every lawful way they can and make clear that they won't be silenced,” said Terry Frank, the family’s lawyer. “There's no connection between these alleged tree-sitters and what the Rileys have done.”

MVP lawyers argued that the family members should have asked the tree-sitters to leave. They say that the tree-sitters have cost the company more than $6,000 at this point… and could cost them more than $250,000 if tree-clearing begins while they’re still up there.

MVP representatives testified that workers will begin using heavy equipment to clear trees on the property in the next week.

An MVP spokeswoman sent a statement Friday to 10 News saying:

“It is unfortunate that MVP had to take this additional legal action to enforce existing federal injunction orders that allow MVP to proceed with the approved project and prevent interference of the project's construction activities. We respect the court’s process and consideration in this matter.”

There's a motion for MVP to pay the families to use their land, but was not heard in Friday's court proceedings.

The Reillys have more hearings coming up, including one next week against the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality in Richmond.