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

Pocahontas Plan Will Compromise Historic Attraction

Friday September 1, 2006
Preservation Alliance of West Virginia

[Update: On September 6, the WV Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal concerning the plan's required 20-year design; the current plan only fulfills a 10-year estimate.]

A planned sewage plant in Pocahontas County has been postponed until it goes before the West Virginia Supreme Court in September. The proposed site is in Slaty Fork on U.S. route 219, where thousands of visitors to local attractions pass annually. The plant has been cause for debate since the County Commission’s appointed Public Service District board announced plans for acquisition of the site through eminent domain. Supporters say that it would enable future development in the vicinity of Snowshoe Mountain Resort.

Sharp's Country Store

The proposed site is the property of several Sharp family members. Tom Shipley, who operates his great uncle’s general store across the highway, helps care for the holdings. Shipley has fought the project since its inception. The store is an intact vestige from the 1920s, with an interior very much unchanged. Shipley claims historic significance for the land dating to the Civil War and earlier, and feels that a plant with airborne byproducts and stadium lights across the highway would pose a threat to the store and the bed-and-breakfast that he operates onsite. Critics feel that his business does not go out of its way to make a significant contribution to the economy, but Shipley resents that the county would take land that has been in his family for generations.

Many people do not oppose a sewage plant, but doubt the wisdom of using the planned site. Some feel that taking the land to benefit private developers is legally questionable. Others object on environmental grounds, since the site is on a flood plain prone to sinkholes. The plant would feed into the upper Elk River trout breeding area. Though the Department of Environmental Protection has issued a Finding of No Significant Impacts statement, this threat has brought objections from fishing associations and communities dependent on money from visitors fishing the Elk.

Project supporters, including the County Commission and Snowshoe Mountain, Inc., point to growth at Snowshoe and the surrounding area to demonstrate the need for the plant, and insist that the site is their only cost-effective option. In 2005, the Governor offered state lands a short distance away on Rail Authority property. Proponents rejected the deal, citing $2 million in additional costs for site access. One supporter pointed to a similar plant in nearby Green Bank, noting that it was barely noticeable to passing motorists.

Located near the road, a plant on the current site could be seen as an imposition on the view shed. Changes to the rural character of the area could negatively impact heritage tourism. The county’s summer tourism season depends on visitors to places like Cass Scenic Railroad and other attractions. Visitors marvel at the scenery, which serves as a draw. The highway has seen development in the area close to Snowshoe; the proposed plant is about five miles below the current core of development. Some worry that the new plant could be a precedent for construction further down, which has also seen growth north of Marlinton. Potential impact of sprawl on heritage tourism, which has played a major part in the local economy for decades, is notably absent from the dialogue.

September’s court case will be tried on grounds that growth projections used to support the plant were inaccurate. Several permits were issued allegedly based on a time period of ten years, rather than the 20-year figures that some agencies require. It is unclear how many private residents will connect to the plant, which requires that two ridges be crossed with pipeline in order to gain access from Snowshoe. Only a small number of residents would connect immediately, leaving the remainder of the plant’s capacity to benefit future development.

Increased demand for vacation property will continue to put development pressure on the county. Few will argue that economic growth is a negative thing, but the lack of consideration for assets that support heritage tourism, or for the management of growth, may cause future problems. For now, the success or failure of the current plan or any alternatives hinges primarily on a battle between the supporters of environmental protection and development.