At the edge of Steve McNaughton's Downingtown property is a patch of trees he rarely enters. When he ventured into the brush on a recent fall day, spooked deer sprang up from the grass - first one, then two more, then after a moment a straggler that darted after the pack.
"It's theirs," he said of the enclave.
But soon, the property could be someone else's.
McNaughton, his wife, and their two daughters are preparing to pack up for several months, maybe longer, while their pasture is ripped up to install a natural gas pipeline.
If approved by federal regulators, a 200,000-pound drill would be erected on their property and bore underground in two directions, creating one segment of Columbia Gas' Eastside Expansion Project. In all, the project calls for adding two nine-mile loops of pipeline, impacting 119 landowners in Chester County and 45 in Gloucester County, N.J.
The project could also offer a glimpse of what might be coming for landowners across the region, as utilities and pipeline companies seek to add nearly a dozen other lines around the Delaware River Basin.
Natural gas pipelines have crisscrossed Southeastern Pennsylvania for decades, in some cases before people settled there, according to Cathy Landry, spokeswoman for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America.
She said that more companies have recently committed to expanding service in the region to connect Marcellus production to nearby markets in Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore, New York, and New England.
Columbia Gas wants to add capacity to the eastern section of its 12,000-mile, 16-state system. The company submitted its final application for the $270 million project to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in November and hopes to gain approval by next fall. If it does, construction could start in the spring of 2015.
The company has the right to obtain easements through eminent domain and is currently securing easements and negotiating compensation with affected landowners. Company officials declined to say how many talks have been successful.
"There are going to be impacts," said Brendan Neal, community relations and stakeholder outreach manager for the company, a subsidiary of NiSource Inc. "I don't want to sugarcoat that at all. Someone's going to have this pipeline on their property. But we want to make that . . . disruption minimal."
Several landowners say the process has been arduous and at times contentious. Some want Columbia to rethink the route.
"They floated a number to me that I found to be fairly unacceptable," said Terrence O'Neill of Downingtown, who would see scores of trees torn down if the 26-inch-diameter pipeline passes through his property.
His concerns and others are detailed in dozens of letters filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission from homeowners, businesses, and even the director of a 75-student school in Downingtown who worries about the impact construction will have on transportation and classes.
Even those who won't have to leave their homes worry about declining land values and safety as drillers bore into their grounds or excavators level trees at the edge of their property.
Columbia officials say they have had open houses, public meetings, and hundreds of conversations with landowners - and that they've responded by making changes to the project.
When a software company on the route said the pipeline project would cause it to reconsider building its headquarters along the route in Caln Township, Columbia agreed to re-route the trench across the street to township-owned land.
Other landowners say they don't have the same sway.
"What choice do I have?" said O'Neill, who said he has delayed building a retirement home on land bought for that purpose. "I can put the thing in the conservation easement and then they get to fight me and the conservation. But sooner or later . . .. they win."
McNaughton, too, said there is little he can do to stop the pipeline from crossing his 15-acre property. But that hasn't kept him from proposing an alternative: a route that was approved about five years ago for a pipeline that was never built.
The path would require clear-cutting and trenching, a method company officials say is more invasive than drilling.
Harold Harper, though, considers it a major inconvenience to have a drill bore beneath his Downingtown property - placing a pipeline 35 feet from his front door.
"When a pipeline of this size goes up in flames, it creates a fairly large crater. That would take up my whole house if it happened in my front yard," said Harper, who has two other pipelines under his property, about 75 feet from the house.
Such incidents are not unprecedented. There have been 25 explosions on natural gas transmission lines since January 2010, according to the federal office that tracks such data.
Two existing pipelines also run beneath McNaughton's property. While the family has lived through construction on those lines in the past, this would be their first time being displaced. McNaughton declined to say what they could be compensated for the disruption.
But he said Columbia has agreed to house them elsewhere because the boring would be impossible to live through and would disrupt the quiet he needs for his at-home job as a computer programer.
The tranquillity, he said, is what drew the family there 20 years ago, before any of the surrounding development.
They planted a salad garden and herb patch with chard, chives, and mint. At the end of a tree-lined driveway - which McNaughton said would have to be widened to carry the weight of the drill - they built a pasture for the family's pony and horse. Today, the fences are bowed where the 1,600-pound horse named Gallilee has scratched against the beams.
Columbia has agreed to board the animals. McNaughton said parting with them will painful.
"It's the fabric of our family," he said. "It's a lifestyle. And when you're breaking that apart, that's very difficult."
Neal, the company spokesman, said that using the McNaughton property will avoid disruptions to other properties - including playing fields in Upper Uwchlan Township, where the company at one time considered drilling.
Patricia Kirkner, the executive director of Downingtown's Copeland Run Academy, which sits on the edge of the pipeline path, said she hopes the noise and traffic will be mitigated. She said Columbia already agreed not to store equipment in the parking lot when she protested.
"I think everyone knows this is coming through somehow, somewhere, in this area," Kirkner said. "So it will just be all of us hoping that we come out as unscathed as possible."