Save the Sharp Farm of Pocahontas County
History and heritage in Slatyfork, West Virginia.

Development Council Approves Sewage Money for Slaty Fork

Saturday June 16, 2007
The Pocahontas Times

Drew Tanner
Staff Writer

Despite objections from county residents, conservation groups and representatives of the very customers the project is designed to serve, the West Virginia Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council approved a $2.5 million request for the proposed sewage treatment plant at Slaty Fork last Wednesday.

The $2.5 million is expected to cover costs incurred by the project so far, pay for redesigning the plant to comply with water temperature regulations imposed by the state and pay for hiring Slaty Fork resident Kermit Friel as the project's coordinator.

The IJDC has pledged a total of $9.5 million toward the $18 million project designed to serve Snowshoe Mountain Resort and emerging development in the Slaty Fork area.

In addition to the $2.5 million loan from the IJDC, the Pocahontas County Public Service District is also planning to take over the resort's present sewage treatment plant, valued at $2 million.

At a PSD meeting in April, PSD attorney Tom Michael said the takeover would help fund research into moving the proposed regional plant to a different site.

Representing the bulk of homeowners at the resort, Skip Mills, director of the Snowshoe Property Owners Council, told members of the IJDC, Wednesday, his group is opposed to the project.

"There are new facts that have not been considered, and we need time,” said Mills.

Mills said the karst, limestone geology of the area and the objections of many of the state's environmental and conservation groups have not been taken into consideration by project planners.

Many of those who own the approximately 1,800 properties at the resort have said they oppose seeing their rates increase up to 500 percent to subsidize further development in and around the resort.

About 50 resort property owners live at Snowshoe year-round, said Mills.

In addition to Mills' comments, the IJDC received a letter from SPOC president Michael Olsen, requesting that the council table the county's request.

Olsen described the project as one that Snowshoe homeowners "do not need, nor want.”

The transfer of Snowshoe's facilities to the PSD represents an effort to bypass the concerns of property owners, said Olsen. "The clever move by Snowshoe and the PSD have left the primary parties who will be charged for these services out of the decision loop, and we have had no opportunity to voice appropriate public opposition to this action,” Olsen wrote.

Olsen added that the high rates associated with the project would have a chilling effect on property sales at the resort in an already soft real estate market.

"It is often these types of breakpoint actions, made without proper consultation with all affected parties, which can further chill economic development,” wrote Olsen.

In addition to opposition from SPOC, the project also faces opposition from several conservation and environmental groups. Regina Hendrix, representing the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, said those groups oppose the project, which she described as "ill-conceived and unsafe."

Hendrix predicted the new plant would eventually fail, because it would be constructed on unstable ground.

Such a failure could have serious consequences for the upper Elk River's population of naturally reproducing brook and rainbow trout, as well as the local groundwater, she said.

"The Sierra Club recommends this project be put on hold," said Hendrix. "We want to see the headwaters of the Elk River preserved."

Hendrix recommended holding a meeting of all stakeholders to determine what should be done.

David Fleming, of Cass, said project planners have shown a lack of knowledge of the geology of the proposed site for the new treatment plant. In some instances, the pipeline routes to the plant intersect springs or caves, he said.

Quoting resort development director J.D. Morgan in a video of a condominium owners association meeting that has circulated online, Fleming said Snowshoe operates its existing wastewater treatment plant "at a six-digit loss."

Now, Fleming said, the resort was "trying to transfer their liability to our public service district."

The project is not time-sensitive and should be tabled "so further input can be considered," Fleming said.

Tom Shipley, operator of Sharp's Country Store in Slaty Fork, said project planners should step back and hold stakeholder meetings similar to those recently held in the Canaan Valley.

Those meetings brought about the creation of the state's first new public service district in more than two decades.

The Canaan Valley Public Service District will consolidate the 17 "package” sewage treatment plants in that resort area into four systems.

Tucker county officials have opted to spend $3 to $7 million fixing existing plants rather than an estimated $20 million for a completely centralized system.

Like the upper Elk River watershed, the Canaan Valley is a mostly karst, limestone region.

In Slaty Fork, Sharp's Country Store lies just a few hundred yards upstream of the site of the proposed plant—also on family property—a site that is threatened by eminent domain.

Shipley noted the political turmoil the project has caused in the county, resulting in the defeat of an incumbent county commissioner and the resignation of the PSD's chairman.

No one representing the county's PSD or the resort addressed the IJDC.

Following the public comments, Council chairman Ken Lowe told members the Slaty Fork project is "a very sensitive issue that's of great interest.”

Lowe noted that he was a real estate developer "and, at the same time, a West Virginian.” People in the state want to protect the environment he said, but they also want economic development.

"It's something we need to give a lot of thought to because there's a lot at stake here,” said Lowe.

Council member Bernie Yonkosky moved that the funding be approved.

Yonkosky sits on the state's Water Development Authority and is chairman of the council's Funding Committee. That committee approved the project June 1.

Mike Johnson, of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, seconded Yonkosky's motion.

With no further discussion, the council approved the motion to proceed with the project.

As the project continues to move forward, SPOC's leaders say they are working with lawyers to see if the PSD's takeover of Snowshoe's treatment system is legal and whether resort rate-payers should be responsible for project loans that were negotiated without their involvement.