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Slaty Fork project under fire from resort property owners

Thursday October 11, 2007
The Pocahontas Times

By Drew Tanner, Staff Writer

The embattled sewage treatment plant proposed for Slaty Fork is the subject of new legal action, this time from resort property owners themselves.

Attorneys for the Snowshoe Property Owners Council filed a petition with the West Virginia Public Service Commission at the end of September to halt the transfer of Snowshoe Mountain Resort's sewage operations to the Pocahontas County Public Service District.

The proposed transfer of the 1,800-customer sewer system from private ownership to the PSD came about as part of a plan to build a new, larger sewage treatment plant for the resort and nearby homes and businesses. Plans call for the new plant to be built along U.S. 219 near Sharp's Country Store, adjacent to Big Spring Fork of Elk River.

The proposed plant faces opposition from the Sharp family and a number of conservation and angling groups who object to locating the plant in an area known for its caves and springs and using a trout stream at the head of the Elk River as the discharge point for treated sewage.

The complaint from SPOC charges that the Pocahontas PSD "has no meaningful assets or operations" and calls it a "paper utility" formed to develop a regional wastewater treatment system serving Snowshoe Mountain Resort and 108 other customers at the base of Snowshoe Mountain.

The PSD's only operational facility is the water plant that serves Durbin, Frank and Bartow.

In February, 2006, the PSC granted the PSD a certificate authorizing the construction of the sewer plant and acquisition of Snowshoe's sewage collection system.

However, the PSC did not approve the transfer of Snowshoe's wastewater treatment plant to the public service district, according to the SPOC complaint.

The plant has been the subject of numerous citations by the state's Department of Environmental Protection.

The PSD now proposes to acquire the entire Snowshoe collection system, including the old sewage treatment plant, which the complaint notes, "has been in non-compliance with state and federal clean water laws and regulations for a number of years."

Since the PSD has not provided a plan or a budget for maintaining the old plant, SPOC said there is no telling whether those costs might require further rate increases.

"Already, rates for service to un-metered homes are set as high as $102.75 per home per month when the project is completed," the complaint states.

With base-rates currently between $11-15 for some units, people on both sides of the issue have said rates at the resort have been artificially low, but homeowners have bristled at the prospect of paying some of the highest sewage rates in the state.

The existing Snowshoe sewage system "has employees and assets to address the various problems with the current sewer system," SPOC contends, while the county's PSD has only one employee and no experience treating sewage.

Therefore, the complaint concludes, the transfer of Snowshoe's entire sewage system to the PSD would allow Snowshoe Mountain to abandon its sewage responsibilities to the homeowners and simply pass any liabilities on "to an entity with no meaningful assets or personnel, and no demonstrated... ability to address the problems at Snowshoe."

In a response filed late last week, attorneys for the resort and the PSD said SPOC was trying to circumvent the PSC's procedures and that the group should have intervened in the certificate case that was decided in 2006.

"SPOC had long been aware of the regional plant project and consciously chosen not to oppose it, but it now wants the Commission to delay the regional plant project to consider what SPOC believes is a better alternative," the response states. "SPOC's change of view does not legitimatize the filing of a baseless, sham complaint, particularly one that is, by the complainant's own published statement, interposed for the purpose of delaying the regional plant project."

With the original certificate case likely to be reopened to consider the transfer of the resort's operations and a $2.5 million advance on the project's funding from the West Virginia Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council, attorneys for the resort and the PSD said they would not oppose SPOC's intervention in that instance.

"The District and Snowshoe, of course, reserve their rights to take the position that SPOC is bound by the prior proceedings in which it failed to participate," the attorneys wrote.

SPOC's argument against the transfer echoes that of Indian Draft resident John Leyzorek, who filed a suit against the PSD August 31. In his petition, Leyzorek said the project amounts to an "unwarranted public bail-out of a wealthy corporation."

Leyzorek went a step further than SPOC, however, saying that the project's high rates will result in "forced gentrification and ethnic cleansing of the proposed service area."

Leyzorek opposed the expansion of the Durbin Public Service District in 1998 and was an intervenor when that case went before the West Virginia Public Service Commission. At that time, Leyzorek argued that the expansion was part of a plan to subsidize development in the Snowshoe area and was against the law.

He later intervened in the 2005 PSC case that gave the PSD approval to move forward with the Slaty Fork project.

The PSC also is reviewing a petition by Sharp's Country Store proprietor Tom Shipley seeking to reopen the new sewer plant's certification process on grounds that the cost and scope of the project has changed since it was initially presented.

Shipley and other Slaty Fork residents and landowners have also filed suit against the PSD in Pocahontas County Circuit Court.

That suit is still pending before Circuit Judge Joseph Pomponio.

Leyzorek's petition is scheduled for a hearing before Circuit Judge James Rowe this Friday.