“Cultural Attachment” the Latest Barrier to Infrastructure Projects?

country_road

Take me home, country roads…

by James A. Bacon

Landowner and environmentalist groups have advanced a number of arguments against building more gas pipelines (see previous post), but among the more novel is the idea that the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) will disrupt the “cultural attachment” rural landowners feel for the land that would be traversed. What foes are contending here is that construction of a pipeline will do far more than hurt property values. It will damage peoples’ culture in ways that cannot be mitigated.

Most arguments against the Virginia pipelines are familiar in the sense that they appeal to widely (if not universally) recognized principles of economics and environmental stewardship. The “cultural attachment”gambit  is not like anything I have seen before.

Here’s how a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission from some 30 environmental and landowner groups makes the case:

The proposed route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will cross primarily rural landscapes where agriculture and forestry are the dominant land uses. The communities that would be affected by the ACP have deep roots in and strong cultural identification with the land and its rural character. In addition to adverse effects associated with the use of eminent domain, construction and right-of-way maintenance … the ACP will have significant adverse effects on the character of these currently non-industrialized areas.

The adverse effects of the taking and alteration of private property … must be assessed in light of the affected communities’ “cultural attachment” to the land. Cultural attachment is the “cumulative effect over time of a collection of traditions, attitudes, practices, and stories that ties a person to the land, to physical place, and kinship patterns.” Much of the land that would be affected by the ACP has been held in families for generations and people’s reliance on the land for survival and prosperity has resulted in high levels of cultural attachment. Rural Appalachian communities have historically suffered from significant intrusions, such as railroad highway constructions, that have “undercut the cultural patterns that had developed through people’s relation to the land, physical place, and kin.

As the U.S. Forest Service recognized in a 1996 Draft Environmental Impact Statement for an Appalachian Power Co. project in rural West Virginia and Virginia:

Substantial outside-generated intrusions (such as highways, railroads, and transmission lines) that breach the boundary of a high cultural attachment area may have significant adverse impacts to the sustainability of the local culture. … The permanence of the intrusions is a symbol of the imposed dominance of commerce and economic interests. … Permanent and elongate linear intrusions tend to bifurcate previously existing cultural units into new units. This tends to fracture informal support systems and create new boundary areas. Boundary areas created by intrusion are often abandoned by area residents from cultural management, thereby increasing the likelihood of additional intrusions.

Bacon’s bottom line: It strikes me that this argument is getting at something real. Some people feel an attachment to the land so strong that it transcends the monetary value of the land. Disruption to these ties cannot be measured by any conventional means, thus they cannot be compensated.

If the Virginia Department of Transportation wanted to run a highway through my home in western Henrico where I have lived for 13 years, I would be plenty unhappy. But I wouldn’t be devastated. My personal identity is not tied up in the house. I have no ancestral ties here, no spiritual ties. Leaving the house would have no impact on my network of kin and friends. I fully expect to sell the house when I retire and I’m ready to downsize. The house is a commodity in a way that property is not for people with strong attachments to the land.

I sympathize with those who fear the loss of something that can never be retrieved. But I have concerns. The idea of “cultural attachment” is so vague and hard to define that it could be applied to almost anything. There is no way to measure cultural attachment, and there is no way to ascertain the sincerity of the people who claim to have it. If this new doctrine were given legal force, it could be invoked to block any infrastructure project that ran through a rural area, that is to say, almost every road, highway, rail line, transmission line or pipeline ever proposed.

The idea has been around at least 20 years (since the 1996 U.S. Forest Service report at least). It doesn’t appear to have gained much traction since then. It will be interesting to see if FERC gives it any credence.

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11 responses to ““Cultural Attachment” the Latest Barrier to Infrastructure Projects?

  1. To heck with cultural attachment. Just pay the full economic value.

    The Virginia of a century, or even a half century ago, was far less populated, had far more open land. But….

    My mother’s family’s ancestral homestead on the New River in the Pepper’s Ferry area was taken in the ’30s for what is now the Radford Army Arsenal. Not that my mother’s branch of the (then large) family was living there at the time, but there was a strong family attachment. It had been in the family for more than a century. But hey, they made artillery shells there that were essential for the war….and gave jobs to thousands of Virginians at the peak.

    Her grandfather had a store on Cove Creek in Bland County. It got taken for a road widening project….

    The photo you use above? If the pipeline was buried through that meadow, you wouldn’t even know it. Seriously. The sheep would not mind at all.

    • Steve:

      You would know the pipeline is there. At least, the buried gas pipeline in Great Falls is clearly visible. Why? Well, the pipeline company won’t allow any trees on top of the pipeline, they make anybody with a fence install a gate or a gap where the pipeline runs and they put metal posts that are about 4′ high every 100 meters or so. If your house happens to be where the gas company decides it needs a metal pole then a metal pole is placed right in front of your house. This is exactly what happened to one of my neighbors.

      Make no mistake – the supposedly buried gas lines are far, far from invisible. They are eyesores because the gas company apparently can’t figure out where their pipeline runs without God awful looking metal poles every 100 yards or so.

  2. Regarding the quote, “The idea of “cultural attachment” is so vague and hard to define that it could be applied to almost anything. There is no way to measure cultural attachment, and there is no way to ascertain the sincerity of the people who claim to have it,” Bacon needs to learn much more about rigorous social science and communication theory. Of course it can be strictly applied, measured, and even quantified. Social science scholars, especially linguistic anthropologists, among others, have developed rigorous reliable, replicable, and valid modes of analysis to deal with such issues. I’ll abstain from more detail because it gets into academic concepts that are probably inappropriate here. In any case, the comment is so naive as to be ignorant, if not worse.

    Re Haner’s comment, the Arsonel has left a legacy of air, water, and ground pollution that qualify it for an EPA Superfund Site. Much of air quality is rated as poor to mediocre for many miles around because of it; other river use caveats are in place; and some living within a couple of miles of the plant have reported respiratory illnesses due to it. Employment stats from back when are great, but it’s legacy is far less attractive.

    Can’t see the photo, but the Mountain Valley Pipeline proposed to come through this area is one of the 42″ variety–new, few, and basically untested. Lots of land taken on the surface (75′ or so; over 100′ for construction) from most agricultural uses. Means farmers and others won’t be able to use much of their land unless they own several hundred acres. And then how to get their heavy equipment (which includes pickup trucks) across it to the rest of their land is very problematic, at least as offered so far. Plus underground leaks very likely in heavy karst environment. Sheep? Well, there’s a limit, and it looks like they’re going to have to use herbicides anyway, at least in some places And then they want the option to more than double the width with a second same size or larger pipeline. Plus maintenance of access roads. Not notice it? Sorry, but you’re out to lunch on that one.

  3. Thanks for the reflection Jim. Perhaps I can help paint a picture of a cultural landscape that may stop a pipeline. Let’s assume said pipeline is crossing thru a registered rural historic district at a point along a scenic byway that is a contributing resource to a registered national historic landmark, an archaeology site for the original village of the larger area that also includes a unique feature of two early nineteenth century mills connected by over a mile of well preserved water traces dug by the slaves of surrounding plantations . Let’s assume that site is also the only public park in the county and contains at the crossing one of the most recognized birding trails by the VA Dept of Game and Inland Fisheries and the Audubon Society. Let’s assume there exists a manuscript for a book to be published on that village, a proposal for archaeology study by a reputable firm drafted before the pipeline proposal and stated interest from a lead archaeology professor of a local university.

    WOULD THAT BE ENOUGH CULTURE AND HISTORY TO MAKE THE POINT THAT THE CULTURAL LANDSCAPE SHOULD NOT BE INVADED BY A 42 INCH PIPELINE. OR MIGHT IT HELP THAT THE AREA IS ALSO CONTAINS WETLANDS, TWO STREAMS AND ABUNDANT EVIDENCE OF THE HISTORIC VILLAGE! THAT HAPPENS TO BE THE CASE WHERE DOMINION PREFERRED ROUTE IS RUNNING. I WOULD NOT WANT TO BET ON THE DOMINION HORSE IN A RACE WITH THAT LANDOWNER. IF I WERE DOMINION I WOULD RELOCATE. AND OH THE LANDOWNER IS A NON PROFIT FOUNDATION THAT OPERATES A NATURAL HISTORY CENTER ON THE SITE AND HOLDS A KITE FESTIVAL, ATTENDED BY 2000 ON AN ADJOINING SITE. AND OH THE SITE FOR THAT KITE FESTIVAL HAPPENS TO BE ON ONE OF THE FASTEST GROWING BUSINESSES IN THE STATE – AN APPLE CIDER BUSINESS. NO I WOULD NOT WANT TO BE ON THE DOMINION HORSE.

  4. well..geeze… can I ask if “cultural attachment” is an external impact to you and your abode?

    like perhaps – people using a neighborhood street as a cut-through because of a change to adjacent roadways…???

    or Verizon wanting to put a cell tower where there used to be sky?

    there’s an interesting and important word used to describe impacts in a NEPA and/or EIA study.

    it’s called “significant”.

    take a road near you that is expanded….maybe two-lane to 4-lane but still 45 mph…

    now take that same road and make it a 70mph interstate.

    take a powerline with a 20 ft corridor ..now take a powerline with a 200 foot corridor and towers 200 ft tall..

    take a mountain view…. now put wind turbines on it…

    or a water view – and a Dominion powerline across it..

  5. A few years ago, there was a plan to slice an expressway through the Roslyn Episcopal retreat center and build a highway spanning the James River tying Parham to Chippenham and beyond. Never mind the horrific impact of this road on everything it traversed.

    I don’t have to tell you what happened. But that was the first time I heard about “cultural attachment” to the land below Roslyn’s heights and the debate was no prettier then than now.

    There are things worth saving in this world, and a pastoral scene like that, on the James River’s flank, in farmland yet so close to suburban Richmond, laid out below a place dedicated to the contemplation of spiritual things, was fairly high on that list for many, many people.

    Yet, in order to supply the needs of a growing population, in order to stimulate the economy that employs and feeds them, something had to give. We could not stop every project for a highway to cross the James. Especially west of downtown, in an area where the last crossing was built in the 1920s. Notwithstanding the xenophobic politics of Henrico versus Chesterfield versus (gasp!) the City of Richmond — it was built.

    Was there a distinct Culture of River Road to which many, many people were Attached, that was so rudely shoved aside in this instance? Did no one arise to defend the unique cultural attributes of County suburbia between the University of Richmond and Moreland Farms that would be inundated by traffic and hordes of newcomers if not entirely swept aside by such a travesty? Of course they did! Indeed, I cheered them on, at the time. All Saints Church, where we met in protest, had relocated out of downtown precisely to avoid such a fate! Pave four lanes through Roslyn? Bleaugghh! I was on the losing side at Roslyn, and again at St. John Vianneys. Yet today those roads are a part of the culture of Richmond’s far west end, for better or worse.

    Jim, the problem is, we have laws governing the circumstances in which condemnation of private property is justified, and who shall decide the contested facts, and what compensation is due, and in none of these instances is ANY JUDGMENT TO ALLOW CHANGE ever satisfactory to those attached to THINGS THE WAY THEY ARE. Stasis is inexorably opposed to progress. But we seem to lack the guts EITHER to modify those laws to reflect changing attitudes, OR to carry through with the laws we already have. We have to have some way, hopefully a reasonably expeditious way, to decide such things and move on. Yet as you said, “Some people feel an attachment to the land so strong that it transcends the monetary value of the land. Disruption to these ties cannot be measured by any conventional means, thus they cannot be compensated.”

    They cannot be compensated. They cannot deal with change. Hopefully the FERC will recognize them for who they are, and follow the existing law for what it is.

    • Roslyn is a good example, and so is the Skiffes Creek controversy.

      Sometimes society is confronted with extremely hard choices. I’m conflicted. I sympathize with people who feel like they’re being bulldozed by the state. I also worry that we’re on a trajectory that will make it impossible to build major infrastructure projects anywhere.

    • My concern is that the path we have been on for a long time seems to always create polarities. Each side opposes the other, then we turn to a third party who often considers only some of the issues and picks a winner.

      If we could use our collective intelligence to reframe the question and collaborate on finding better solutions, all would benefit. Rather than put the solution in either/or terms – disrupt a family’s way of life or provide the energy necessary to keep people comfortable in their homes and businesses; consider how we might keep the landowner whole and keep others comfortable.

      This would lead to other solutions. For example, could there be a solution that provides comfort without the loss of land? Yes, renewables require no fuel and are cost competitive with gas plants. Or better yet, reduce the use of energy which is cheaper for ratepayers, more comfortable for residents and workers and requires no land. Everybody wins. The only necessary ingredient is a change in perspective from regulators and utilities in how to provide comfort, using less energy, and still keep our utilities functional and profitable. It is time for us to embrace a different way of seeing possibilities without requiring others to lose in order for us to win.

      • I would ask – is there a difference between cultural attachment and NIMBY?

        and I agree with TomH. It seems virtually anything that has difference of opinions these days – ends up as a partisan issue.

        I think the concept of property rights vs changes made that affect them has gotten ….hyper.

        Not that there have not been abuses with folks like VDOT but also the regulated monopolies…

        but now we’re to the point where it appears to me that someone can opposed anything that affects their view with the claim of “cultural attachment” – and yes.. trying to build an interstate highway today would be damned near impossible – and anyone who lives near the I-95 corridor between Richmond and Washington KNOWs that SOMETHING has to be done… but it’s probably never going to happen.

  6. The standard “cultural attachment” seems void for vagueness. A negative impact on the environment or a protected historical site can be understood and debated. But “cultural attachment” is up with the “penumbras and emanations” found by the late Justice Douglas in the Griswold case.

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