Harrison Commission Looking at Eminent Domain to Keep West Fork
24 March 2015
By Jeremiah Shelor, Saff Writer
CLARKSBURG — The Harrison County Commission is moving forward on
plans to save the Highland, Two-Lick and West Milford dams.
The Clarksburg Water Board owns the dams. The board agreed Monday
to use funding from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to remove
the dams, which no longer serve their intended purpose and have
created liability concerns for the utility.
But the commission, responding to a group of county residents
opposed to removing the dams, has made it clear it wants to take
ownership of the dams as part of plans to build a water trail
along the West Fork.
The commissioners are scheduled to discuss the dams and the water
trail project when they hold their regular meeting at the
Last week, the commission voted for the second time this year to
declare its support for the water trail, with the implication
being that the commission would use the project as the basis for
an attempt to seize the dams for the county’s public use.
Currently the county is taking necessary steps to file a petition
for eminent domain. Prosecuting Attorney Rachel Romano —
instructed by the commission last week to formulate a legal
strategy for acquiring the dams — said Tuesday that she’s in the
process of getting the dams appraised.
“We have to get an appraiser out there to determine a fair market
value, if there is even a fair market value for the property,”
Romano said. “That’s the stage I’m at right now. I’m taking it
step by step.”
Romano confirmed that the county would be responsible for paying
for a professional to appraise the dams in order for the eminent
domain process to move forward.
Advising the Clarksburg Water Board members prior to their vote
Monday, Tim Stranko, the board’s general counsel, discussed the
eminent domain process as it might apply to the dams.
“The county commission would have to deposit into the court the
appraised value of those dams as a surety, and then we would
litigate how much the water board, our ratepayers, would recover
for the taking of the dams by the county commission,” Stranko
said. “So eminent domain is problematic, I think.”
Stranko, elaborating on his comments Tuesday, said the provisions
for eminent domain laid out in Chapter 54 of West Virginia State
Code do not neatly apply to the current situation between the
water board and the county commission.
State Code section 54-1-2 lists “public uses for which private
property may be taken or damaged.”
“It is for public condemnation of private property. This would be
public condemnation of public property,” Stranko said. “I don’t
know of any case in my 20 years in West Virginia where a public
entity has condemned another public entity’s property.”
Officials from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the state
Division of Natural Resources and the National Park Service have
also disputed the idea that the dams are necessary for a
successful water trail along the West Fork River.
Frank Jernejcic, a retired DNR fisheries biologist, said Monday
that removing the dams might even attract more boaters by
eliminating the need to circumnavigate the dams.
But Watson said his main concern is in preserving the river for
those that enjoy the West Fork the way it is. He said removing the
dams could eliminate recreational opportunities currently
available with deeper, slower moving water.
“I’d like to have three distinct areas of usability with the river
created by the dams,” Watson said. “The river trail is nice, but
that’s second, as far as I’m concerned, to giving those other
individuals that use it those slow, deeper pools in those longer
Commissioner Frank “Chunki” Angotti said he sees preserving the
dams as important to the long-term success of the water trail.
“There’s nothing like having a place on the river that has flow,”
Angotti said. “This river trail that can go through a few
counties, I think it deserves us to take a good, hard look at
saving these dams to make the river trail a better investment for
Keeping the dams as part of the water trail project would likely
require additional investments to make them safer for boaters and
others on the water. The county spent $4,000 earlier this year to
bring in an engineer from Colorado to evaluate modifying the dams.
Watson said the county hasn’t received an exact quote on how much
retrofitting the dams would cost.
“Let’s remember this: Whatever the cost is, and whatever the
construction phase would be, is not going to happen over night,”
Watson said. “The only thing the county would be able to do would
be to plan it, to facilitate it and to generate whatever the
funding — however we could do the combination of the funding — and
do it in stages.”