DAVIDSON, N.C. -- When Jimmy McKnight returned from a business trip to Virginia in late October, dozens of towering trees were gone from his land.

A contractor cleared the trees as part of a project to run a natural gas line beneath the East Rocky River in Cabarrus and northern Mecklenburg counties.

McKnight was shocked at the loss. Why take so many trees for a gas line being installed 20 feet beneath the river? he wondered. The river runs beside part of his 65 acres near Davidson.

The ash and sycamores were up to 150 years old and 70 feet tall. They stabilized the river bank. Now, only their stumps remained, along with exposed roots that McKnight said will die.

I m going to be taking these people to court, McKnight, 57, said on a tour of the property Friday. Absolutely no need for this at all.

Piedmont Natural Gas Co., which is building the pipeline, says the trees had to be cleared to allow future access to the line.

McKnight is a real estate broker and developer in the Mooresville area and in Virginia. He was at a broker s relicensing class in Virginia when a contractor for the pipeline project called to say workers were ready to clear the trees.

McKnight said he asked that the contractor wait until he returned the next day. I said meet me at 1 p.m., and by the time I got back, there was nothing to meet about, McKnight said.

McKnight, who also raises beef cattle on his and his wife Gail s land, signed an agreement in January granting Piedmont Natural Gas a 75-foot-wide easement for the project. To prevent erosion, McKnight said he got language into the agreement stipulating that the company bore under the river rather than open cutting the river bank.

The agreement also requires Piedmont to minimize any cutting of trees along the river bank. In areas where trees are removed, the river bank will be reinforced to insure there is no future erosion. Erosion is not permitted.

McKnight said he understood some trees would have to be cut, but only enough for a temporary construction bridge. When I returned home, they had cleared over 260 feet of the river bank, well exceeding any construction bridge s requirement, he said.

Clearing the trees was necessary, Piedmont Natural Gas spokesman David Trusty said. The trees needed to be cleared so workers can access the river to inspect and maintain the gas line for as many years as the line is in use, he said.

The company, he said, intends to do exactly as promised in the agreement with McKnight.

We really do our very best to restore the land after we re through, to put it back the way it needs to be and mitigate erosion, Trusty said.

Piedmont continually inspects its pipelines in the Carolinas and Tennessee, Trusty said. In this case, we tried to work very closely with him and to minimize the loss, he said of McKnight.

The company maintains about 2,750 miles of larger transmission pipeline, the same type being installed beneath East Rocky River, Trusty said. The company has an additional 23,000 to 24,000 miles of smaller distribution line that delivers gas to cities and along streets.

The pipeline beneath East Rocky River will be one segment of a pipeline that will provide natural gas to Duke Energy s Sutton Plant near Wilmington. The plant s coal-fired units are being retired so cleaner-burning natural gas can fuel it beginning in 2014.

McKnight, however, said he s so upset that he s asked his Statesville lawyer to file legal action against the company. He wants to be compensated financially. Boring under the river totally negates the need for such tree cutting, he said.

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