A recent local news item provides the perfect illustration of why the proper evidencing and reporting of title to real estate interests is so important to our fundamental rights as well as to the regional and national economy.
A local businessman has filed suit against Allegheny County, PA, claiming that the county is denying him the right to remove about 700,000 tons of coal that he owns. 74-year-old Nello Fiore, of Whitehall, PA says that if the county won’t let him mine the coal, then they should pay him for the value of the coal, which lies beneath 92 wooded acres in the Sleepy Hollow section of the county’s South Park, located just south of Pittsburgh. The high-quality coal, which sells for about $143 per ton locally, could be worth well over of $100 million, according to Attorney Thomas W. King, who represents Mr. Fiore.
Southwestern Pennsylvania, which lies in the heart of the Appalachian Basin, has often been referred to the “Saudi Arabia of Coal”. In fact, coal mining has been a mainstay of our region’s economy since the dawn of the Industrial Age. Because of this, Pennsylvania real estate law recognizes surface and subsurface interests separately. Typically, when someone purchases a parcel of real estate in Pennsylvania, only the surface interest is conveyed unless the mineral or subsurface interest is specifically mentioned in the deed. (See my previous blog entry, Searching Mineral Interests: Don’t Try This at Home.)
The county, to which the surface interest in the land was donated in the 1930s, considered a proposal to strip mine the coal at a community meeting this past June, which was attended by about 300 people, including Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato. Mr. Onorato nixed the plan after it was discovered that a 2001 County Parks Master Plan designates the area as “an important biological zone” which has also been recommended for designation as an Open Space Reserve.
Mr. Fiore’s lawsuit alleges that the county is acting unlawfully in preventing him from removing the coal, which he inherited from his brother, who purchased it from Consolidation Coal Co., the predecessor to Consol Energy. According to Attorney King, the deed gives Mr. Fiore the right to mine the coal at any time, regardless of who owns the surface interest. “If the county will continue to tell us we can’t mine the coal, Mr. Fiore, under the Pennsylvania Constitution has a right to be paid for it.” Mr. Fiore and his attorney claim that to deny his mining rights amounts to the county exercising eminent domain over his coal, thus he is entitled to reimbursement.
The county says that it’s not preventing Mr. Fiore from mining his coal because he can still retrieve it by underground mining. “He has access to his coal,” says Kevin Evanto, a spokesman for the County Executive’s office, “[the county] is just saying that we’re not willing to allow you to destroy 91 acres of park land to get at it.” However, the lawsuit states that “the coal cannot be recovered by the deep-mining process.” Attorney King says that Mr. Fiore has offered to include a post-mining reclamation plan for soccer and football practice fields and picnic facilities, as well as royalties to the county in excess of $1 million.
Several members of the County Council are on record as saying that they wouldn’t support the proposal, which would be subject to review by the state Department of Environmental Protection. Local residents like Mary Franko have also expressed concern about what strip mining operations will do to their property values. Some nearby homes are located as little as 1,000 feet away from the proposed mining area. In an interview with a local television station, Ms. Franko said, “It's dangerous, dirty, and I don't know how they can possibly protect the perimeter when there's going to be blasting going on. I'm afraid that this is going to devastate our township. We're a small township. Our property values will absolutely diminish”.
To be honest, I’m not really sure where I come down on this one. Mr. Fiore certainly does seem to be on firm legal ground here, (no pun intended) and if I was in his position, I’d probably move to assert my rights as well. On the other hand, if I was one of the residents of that area, I’m not sure I’d want someone coming in and “tearing up my back yard”, regardless of any promises to improve the area afterward. One thing is for sure, the Court is going to have its work cut out for it in dealing with this issue. Let’s just hope the abstractors who researched this thing knew what they were doing.