Hinton, West Virginia: Same Old Government Land Grab

April 30, 2002

By Tom DeWeese

Hinton, West Virginia, is a small rural community of approximately 5,000 people. Most residents have lived their entire lives in the town or surrounding countryside. Many live in the same houses built by long-departed relatives. Hinton is paradise and they don’t care to live anywhere else.

Ann Roach is a new comer. Just a few years ago she discovered Hinton while on a “Mystery Tour” aboard an Amtrak train journeying through the countryside to view the Fall foliage in the valley of the New River Gorge. Ann and her husband Bruce, native Ohioans, were so taken by the beauty of the area that only a few weeks after the Amtrak trip they decided to return and investigate the possibilities of buying some property.

Arriving in Hinton after a three and a half hour car ride, they toured the area then turned down a small, one lane, dangerous road that ran along side the New River. The road had pot holes “big enough to ruin heavy equipment,” high bank areas where cars couldn’t pass safely and where heavy rains and snow drifts caused mud slides and left fallen trees in the road.

Nevertheless, a week later, Ann and Bruce were the proud owners of a small, one bedroom cabin on stilts located between the neglected road and the river. The previous owner of the cabin told them that there were plans in place to fix the road and even showed Ann and Bruce the government documents which assured that fixing the road would have little impact on private property. The only real question was when, if ever, the government would get around to doing the repairs. Residents had been waiting for more than ten years. So Ann and Bruce became happy homeowners along the New River, having fully reviewed all of the documented plans for the New River Parkway.

There was one problem with the cabin; there was not enough room for their eight grand children who were anxious to drive in from Ohio for regular visits. So Ann and Bruce designed a new house plan that would provide all the room needed for happy visits along the New River. To make sure that the road would not affect their house, Bruce approached the planning coordinator of the New River Parkway and was told, “go ahead and build it.” They called the newly built structure “Riversong.” Prominently displayed at the back entrance of the new house is Ann Roach’s land patent, #2717. It carries the date of the year 1841 having been issued originally to Adam Bragg. The official government document assured Bragg that this land would be his, his heirs and his assigns forever.

On September 9, 1999, all of the residents were called to a meeting by the West Virginia Department of Transportation. “This is it,” they thought. “We’re finally going to get those road repairs.”

As the residents arrived at the meeting, they were surprised to see an armed guard at the door. Inside, because of inadequate seating (36 chairs for 150 people), residents, including the elderly, had to line up behind tables. In the back of the room were more tables containing large display boards of photographs showing various property sites along the river. In several cases there were two photos showing the same site, only one had been digitally enhanced to remove homes to show what the property would look like without homes.

As the meeting progressed, the residents began to understand that filling potholes in the dilapidated road wasn’t on the agenda. Apparently there were much bigger fish to fry along the New River. Nervously, the transportation department’s agents announced the “New River Scenic Parkway.” They passed out brochures and did some fast talking about economic revitalization through tourism. They spoke of “view sheds” and “conservation easements. “

Earlier meetings concerning the roads had discussed a parkway, but always with the assurance that private property would be protected. Not this time. The government officials explained the difference. The West Virginia Department of Transportation had signed a “Memorandum of Understanding” with the National Park Service (NPS), the Federal Highway Administration, and the New River Parkway Commission.

The Parkway would not be just an improved road, but would now be a “scenic parkway.” That meant that federal funds would be used to establish a pristine “view shed” along the river. It would mean the government, through the National Park Service, would now determine how the land along the river would be used. Under the “Memorandum of Understanding,” these government entities had come to an agreement that the “Preferred Alternative” for building the Parkway, “will focus on a range of land acquisition options for resource protection along the proposed New River Parkway…”

As the residents began to look through the “brochure” that had been handed out at the door, they were met with these opening words: “Welcome! The purpose of this brochure is to introduce you to this meeting and provide information on the land acquisition/resource protection options being considered…” Clearly, the “Memorandum of Understanding” and the entire plan for the New River Parkway had been decided behind closed doors.

No residents had been asked for their opinions or input to the current plan. Earlier pleas by residents for “no loss of private property” were ignored. The government, like in so many other parts of the nation, had simply decided to take the land of the residents and rearrange it to their liking.

They learned that the West Virginia Highway Department would take all of the land from the road to the river and all the land of “equal scenic value” from the road to the toe of the mountain. The highway department would then give the land to the National Park Service (NPS). This was being done to compensate NPS for any of its lands that would be affected by the Parkway. Now the folks along the New River understood why there was an armed guard at the door.

As the devastating impact of the plan began to dawn on the stunned residents, eighty-four year old widow, Mabel Flanagan, got up and went to the back of the room to look at the display boards of pictures. There, she saw a photograph of her home and the matching one in which her home had been digitally removed. Shocked and distraught, Mabel grabbed her chest and had to be taken home.

The government was taking her land, but she had to find out about it at a public meeting. Did the government care that she had lived her entire adult life in that home? Did they care that she had built it and raised her family there years before the New River Road was anything more that a mud-rutted, weed-strangled one-car-tire path? Did it matter that Mable Flanagan was one of the people who had made the land along the New River so valuable that the government now lusted to own it?

In a television interview a few days later, a tearful Mabel said she just wanted to be allowed to “die in my home on the New River.” After the meeting Mabel never left her home again except for visits to her doctor. In the year after the meeting, she got her wish and died in her beloved river home.

The National Park Service is now constructing a new visitor center to serve as the “gateway” to the New River Parkway, but the visitor center is located just outside Beckley, West Virginia, on the east side of the river. The road will then cross the river on a to-be-constructed bridge and head on down the west side, taking out all of the homes, farms, and fishing camps in its path to form a “view shed” for the parkway.

The government agents spent a lot of energy in an attempt to sell the parkway idea to Hinton residents as revitalized economic growth through increased tourism, but Hinton is on the east side of the river, meaning the parkway will completely bypass Hinton. In a moment of defiant arrogance, NPS Acting Superintendent Henry Law, told Ann Roach that they would “not only get all of the private property along our road, they would take every business along the Hinton by-pass.” So much for economic revitalization. For Hinton, the New River Parkway only means lost homes, lost revenue and lost hope. All they wanted was to have the road fixed.

Of course, all of this pain to the human residents along the river is justified in the name of protecting the environment. But will it? What do the scientific studies say to support eighty-five families losing their homes? There are no studies!

As scientific justification, the state and federal highway departments are using out-dated, unrelated impact studies that were created for two different steams located in another county. Though the New River Parkway report quotes the studies of biologists’ reporting on the impact of the roadway on aquatic life, those biologists say their investigations were not designed to evaluate the effect of a roadway.

After eighteen months of demanding to see the studies, a life-long fisherman of the New River, Charles McGraw learned that there were no biological studies for the project. When contacted, the biologist named in the report denied doing such a study and stated he not only didn’t investigate the effect such a parkway would have on the aquatic life of the New River, but said he had emphasized to the West Virginia Department of Highways (WVDOH) that his study “was not relative to that proposed road construction.” Said Ann, “He was adamant when he learned that the WVDOH…had made such false claims.”

After Mr. McGraw brought this fact to the attention of the state and federal highway departments and the New River Parkway Authority, they admitted that making such false claims was a “mistake.” “I’m forced to agree,” says Ann. “Misrepresentation (lies), fraud, collusion and falsification of an environmental impact study is certainly a mistake!” “Bombing Hanoi was also a mistake, wasn’t it?”

But such minor details don’t seem to bother the politicians who are responsible for funding the New River land grab. The New River Parkway is the baby of Congressman Nick Rahall (D-WV). Rahall is the dean of the West Virginia House Delegation and is the ranking minority member of the House Resources Committee. He also serves on the Congressional Travel and Tourism Caucus. While the state’s economy is devastated by environmental regulations that have all but destroyed the mining industry, Rahall’s specialty seems to be raking in money for museums to preserve the memory of how people used to live in West Virginia.

In 1996 Rahall introduced legislation to create the “National Coal Heritage Area.” Apparently, Rahall thinks that since the miners have all lost their jobs to environmentalism, perhaps, he can make up for it by throwing a few extra bucks their way to give tours of their bankrupt area. In fact, many unemployed miners now depend on fish from the New River as food for their tables.

Now Rahall’s brand of economics has come to Hinton. In 1998, Rahall was able to grab $17 million through the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA21). That money became the seed for the New River Parkway. As a result, someday perhaps the former residents of the New River can give tours of their former property.

Rahall was helped on the Senate side by his good friend and champion money- grabber, Senator Robert Byrd. Byrd has been called the “dean of pork” for his uncanny ability to bring vast amounts of tax dollars into one of the most rural and economically depressed states in the nation. Usually, however, Byrd’s efforts have been for projects that would supply jobs and economic growth. Not so of the New River Parkway land grab. Senator Byrd dismisses his actions by saying he is responsible for appropriating the funds, but he is not responsible for what the agencies do with them. Is that the same message the nation’s most powerful senator will give when campaigning for votes in the next election?

The folks living on the New River are hard working, humble and kind. Many are elderly. They’ve been brought up to believe that government should be respected. Many simply don’t understand what the new parkway intends to do to their way of life. They use the natural abundance of the area to supply much of their food. They are peaceful, happy and content to stay on the river for the rest of their lives, just as their fathers did. In fact, many live in homes built by their ancestors. One family has a land patent made out to their forefathers and signed by James Monroe before he was president. It says the land will be theirs forever – and it has been for over 200 years – before the new breed of American government decided that everything good should belong to it.

Ann Roach and a few of her neighbors are trying to fight back. They have organized as the “Sisters of the River.” Together they have written an endless stream of letters to elected officials trying to find one who will stand with them to save their property. They have researched every facet of the New River Parkway Authority, finding a trail of lies, deceits and false environmental impact statements. They have gone to the media, written letters to the editor and set up an Internet website (www.newriverfriends.org) to sound the alarm.

Along the way, the “Sisters” have made some powerful enemies of a government behemoth that controls millions of dollars, local politicians and the fate of their homes. And the government is beginning to fight back, hoping to silence their main critics.

In February, while it may not be related, one “Sister,” Sheila Davis was arrested, fingerprinted and threatened with huge fines and jail time. The charge: a faulty septic tank. It is interesting to note that the septic tank isn’t just Sheila’s, but is co-owned by another neighbor. He wasn’t arrested. In addition, the health official who signed the arrest warrant is now listed as a “reference” for the New River Parkway, but Sheila and Ann are courageous women who continue to fight on.

The truly frightening fact of the story of the New River land grab isn’t just the power of the government to take the land. It’s that this story and the details surrounding it, from secret plans, to arrogant government agents, to falsified environmental reports, to uncaring elected officials, are identical to so many other cases around the nation. This time it’s the New River, but it’s the same old land grab.

Tom DeWeese
[email protected]

Tom DeWeese is President of the American Policy Center and National Grassroots Coordinator for CFACT (Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow) working to help local activists organize into Freedom Pods (www.CFACT.org). He is also the author of three books, including Now Tell Me I Was Wrong, ERASE, and Sustainable: the WAR on Free Enterprise, Private Property, and Individuals.