Save the Sharp Farm of Pocahontas County
History and heritage in Slatyfork, West Virginia.
The Author's Blog

The Charge of Pocahontas

Sunday February 18, 2007
By David Fleming

I had the pleasure of presenting "The Charge of Pocahontas" at this year's Dinner held in Flatwoods, WV, on February 17. Many thanks to for inviting me to speak. They are a great group, and it was a wonderful event.

L.D. Sharp fishing Big Spring Fork near its confluence with the Elk (circa 1960).
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Back When
The Roots of Subversion
A Forceful Agenda
The Illusion of Hope
The Pocahontas County Of My Mind

Back When

When I started back when, I had no idea what I was doing really. I can give basically 3 reasons why I did it, why I continue to do it. One, I have a particular idea of what Pocahontas County is. Two, the sewer plant proposal is everything my idea is not. And three, I believed I could help stop it.

My family and I moved from Mercer County to Pocahontas County about 4 years ago, when I started work as a computer programmer with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank. That was our ticket to live and grow in what is perhaps the most beautiful place a West Virginian can know. And while I am no longer with the observatory, we are fortunate that Pocahontas is still our home.

My thoughts are always on Pocahontas County, on Her mountains and Her waters. So many moments, in the wilds, away from all unnatural noises and concerns. The many reflections of these times remind how precious such moments are to the soul. Just about any time, I can close my eyes, smell the pines, feel the cool Appalachian air, and hear the rock-rippled waters of Her 8 rivers. The Cheat. The Cherry. The Cranberry. The Gauley. The Greenbrier. The Tygart. The Williams. And, mostly on my mind these days, the Elk.

One way I enjoy Pocahontas County is by driving all around. Countless times I had driven through Slatyfork, Route 219. From Green Bank over Back Mountain, down through Big Spring and Slatyfork, up Elk Mountain and on through the Highland Scenic Highway is a trip I've taken many times. Though I'd never stopped at Sharp's Country Store.

One day, I heard about this sewer plant idea. And about how eminent domain was going to be used to take Sharp land. I knew pretty much where this land was. I started to picture it in my mind, to recall what I knew and heard of the Sharp's contribution to the area's history and heritage, and to realize how this action would be a great betrayal to the spirit of what Pocahontas County is all about. I'd drive that way several times again, but none of it felt quite the same. And I'd still never stopped at Sharp's Country Store.

Then not too long after, it up and hit me that I should set up a website to help fight this plan. So I did, and began as a tool to facilitate mass letter-mailing. Several letters got sent. Then Tom Shipley from the Sharp Farm emailed me to say thanks. So I finally stopped in at the Sharp's Country Store. :-)

Beaming with power of family, Tom kindly showed me everything, the old cabin of Civil War folklore that Hugh Sharp built, countless bits and heirlooms of their family's activities over nearly 300 years. The proposed field, the surrounding sinkholes and boil holes, and therein the unwarranted risk surely inherent in any attempt to build there.

The Roots of Subversion

I've been following this issue for about a year now. Early 2006. But way back in 2003 was the first time the name "Sharp" appeared on the freshly ill-conceived plan to take their land and decimate our Big Spring Fork and Elk.

For a long time, the Sharps knew nothing of it nor suspected anything about it. Dave Sharp, now in his 90s, was at about that time handing over the reigns of the Sharp's Country Store and Bed 'n Breakfast to Tom Shipley, his great nephew. Tom left his home and business in Indiana to come home to Slatyfork and start afresh with new challenges, hopes, and dreams, with all the blessings and responsibilities of continuing his family's heritage.

It was around that same time that Tom was served notice of intent by Pocahontas County commissioners and district operators to acquire one of their fields. By eminent domain. For a sewer plant. In case everyone forgot, welcome home Tom.

A Forceful Agenda

The plan of the county commission and its public service district is for a regional sewage treatment facility. This facility would serve the valley of the Elk River Watershed from Snowshoe down through Slatyfork. But this a technicality only.

Slatyfork has at most a few tens of would-be customers. Snowshoe, on the other hand, is about 10 miles away and has around 2,000 customers. Clearly, this regional plant predominantly benefits Snowshoe. Here are some fast-facts concerning Snowshoe's interest in seeing this plan to fruition:

  • Snowshoe has paid for "right time, right place" ads in The Pocahontas Times to seize the Sharp Farm site, as well as numerous road-side signs promoting their agenda.
  • Snowshoe has secured a $100,000 loan to fund this project, and will soon secure another $100,000.
  • Snowshoe owns the problematic Snowshoe Water & Sewer, Inc., which has received a staggering list of violations from the WVDEP.
  • Snowshoe, part of a multi-billion dollar enterprise, has worked out an agreement with our county officials to hand over Snowshoe Water & Sewer—along with its liabilities—to the county. For over $400,000 on us.

There is little doubt that Snowshoe has sewage problems. But it is quite debatable whether Slatyfork needs sewage treatment. And what's undeniable is that Snowshoe would win in a landslide by making us the taxpayers foot the bill for a problem they allowed to get out of hand.

The Upper Elk watershed is embattled by the will of Snowshoe. At the same time, additionally, from the other end of the Elk in Charleston our state agencies are pushing this same plan up river. The WVDEP—the same agency that has cited Snowshoe Water & Sewer many times—last year downgraded the protections on Big Spring Fork from tier 2.5 to tier 2.0. The reason given was to allow for further development. Specifically, this downgrade would permit a sewer plant to discharge effluent into Big Spring Fork. Also, the WVDEP fast-tracked the plan through by issuing a Finding Of No Significant Impact (FONSI), thereby obviating themselves of the responsibility to conduct the more thorough and legally required Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

The Upper Elk is reputed to be the only river in West Virginia hosting naturally reproducing species of all 3 of Brook, Brown, and Rainbow trout, and this is due entirely to the cold-watered nature of its tributary Big Spring Fork. The downgrade in protection for Big Spring Fork in order to accommodate the sewer plant is a clear and direct threat to the survival of the Upper Elk.

In tandem with the WVDEP's activities, the West Virginia Public Service Commission (WVPSC) has shown a remarkable lack of concern for the impact of this project by conditionally granting a certificate for the construction of the facility (the "condition" being that permits from other entities be issued; this is expected). In a December 2005 hearing, the WVPSC heard much testimony and evidence indicating the facility should not be constructed as planned, but ultimately ruled in favor of the county's Public Service District (PSD), represented by attorney Tom Michael.

Attorney Tom Michael is assisting our county officials with their efforts to make this plan happen. For the record, Tom Michael only gets paid ($200,000) if this plant gets built. Ironically, Tom Michael is a board member of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. I encourage you to contact WVRC and ask them how that works exactly.

Concerning the issue of eminent domain, last year the Legislature of West Virginia decided to assist in the unneeded seizure of Sharp land by passing House Bill 4048, which effectively has this to say concerning the sewer plant:

"(5) ... the construction of a sewer line to serve a single building or institution [Snowshoe] shall be deemed a public use, and, for such purpose, the right of eminent domain ... may be exercised ... in the name of the county commission of the county in which the property is located;"

In short, the plan is for our county and state officials to get Snowshoe off the hook—and put the heritage and purity of Slatyfork and the Upper Elk on a treble hook of subversiveness, big business, and low politics.

The Illusion of Hope

For about 3 years or so, countless people near and far have pleaded with county officials to pursue other avenues to the use of eminent domain. They have steadfastly refused to alter their plan, despite comments such as that of U.S. Senator and Pocahontas County resident Jay Rockefeller, who stated his concern over "the ability of private industry to be included in the decision making process."

Last week, in an apparent change of heart, our county officials announced that they will seek funding to perform a survey of 2 alternative sites (see those sites for yourself).

This sounds hopeful, but be wary. In projects like this, it is common for proponents to create a ruse to "bait and switch" opponents, whereby the hope of a solution is presented falsely.

This tactic helps proponents kill 2 birds with 1 stone. First, it diffuses public opposition so that they can buy more time and operate with less scrutiny. Second, it creates a kind of alibi, so that they can later on say that they tried but couldn't come up with an alternative that was better.

Proponents' late need for more time and less scrutiny has not gone unnoticed. Presently, the Pocahontas County Public Service District is trying to "ram-rod" (to quote newly elected and sole opposing county commission member Martin Saffer) through a Site Coordinator position. Also, the issuance of a bond for the project is frightfully near.

Regarding the promise of alternate sites in general, such have been available both by public donation and private sale since the beginning. In light of this, it should be observed that it is cheaper to spend $25,000 (the survey cost) than it is to incur the costs of redesigns, etc., should a different site actually be selected. Let's hope this effort is sincere, but keep this in mind should it play out to be an illusion.

Perhaps most importantly to those who love and fish the Big Spring Fork and Upper Elk, the 2 alternate sites that will likely be surveyed are very close to the Sharp Farm site. Perhaps still on karst, and certainly closer to the confluence of the Elk's headwaters. Regardless, the essential discharge point of effluent would likely not change if either of these 2 sites was chosen over the Sharp Farm site. Put simply, this effort does the Elk no further good.

Concerning any site, a most important point to bear in mind is the following: the WVDEP has not properly conducted an Environmental Impact Statement. This is required by law, and is the subject of the formal complaint filed against the WVDEP by Eight Rivers Safe Development, Inc.

Power Of the Bond

Alluded to earlier, Snowshoe intends to hand over their troubled Snowshoe Water & Sewer company to the county. This particular action is known as the Three-Phase Transfer Agreement.

In Phase One, the county would assume all the responsibilities and liabilities—past, present, and future—of Snowshoe Water & Sewer. At that time, Snowshoe would effectively be given a sort of "get out of jail free card" by being absolved of their sewer (and water) problems, including infrastructure and legal woes. Phases Two and Three would be the continuation of the merger with Snowshoe Water & Sewer with the county's new regional system. Phase Three would end when the interconnection is complete and the Pocahontas County Public Service District assumes full control.

The completion of the Three-Phase Transfer Agreement would mark the official absolving of Snowshoe from any past, present, or future wrongdoing with respect to sewer (and water) issues, and simultaneously put Pocahontas' PSD to a level of responsibility greatly heightened above that which they're accustomed to dealing with.

The Three-Phase Transfer Agreement will not go forward until the issuance of the bond for the project is complete. If and when the project becomes bonded, Snowshoe will move quickly to ensure that they are relieved of their problem.

This is not the behavior of an entity concerned with the welfare of the Big Spring Fork and the Elk River. Rather, this is the behavior of an agenda that cares but for the permission to make a dollar at any cost, a plan that at its essence doesn't care about the people of Slatyfork, the streams, or the fish.

The Pocahontas County Of My Mind

This past year has been a journey I would've thought more than twice about undertaking had I known its full weight of concern. But I think that's why they call such things journeys, because you don't know where you're starting exactly nor where you'll end up.

Specifics and circumstances change along the way, as do feelings, perceptions, and stances. For me personally, it was enough "back when" that our Sharps and their heritage be spared a most unjust application of eminent domain. Having traveled this far, however, I cannot find myself letting go of the equally important concerns of the Big Spring Fork and the Elk River.

Change happens, and that cannot be stopped. But bad plans don't have to happen, and should be stopped. Because of this plan, Tom Shipley and his Sharp family have borne the unimaginably hopeless weight of the loss of nearly 300 years of Sharp and Slatyfork heritage alike. And with him and his, we likewise bear the fear of witnessing the passing of a priceless way of life, the decimation of the free and clear-flowing Big Spring Fork and Elk, and the cold assertion that we are powerless to do anything to stop the private agendas of big business and low politics.

This project needs to be started over.

Deny the bond, deliver an EIS, defy the use of eminent domain, demand that Snowshoe and officials play fair, and defend Her Elk. This is The Charge of Pocahontas.