It was only three acres.
But those three acres were the difference between residents walking past a striking waterfall and picnicking along an idyllic creek or having the way barred because it was private property.
The City of Beckley discovered this year that waterfront access to an otherwise publically owned site was in jeopardy because of a private claim made eight years ago. If the claim, made with a quit-claim deed, reached 10 years, ownership of the property would be harder to dispute. A quit-claim simply states that if a person does have an ownership claim to property, they agree to quit that claim—but legal issues are rarely simple.
Tom Sopher, a Beckley city councilman and president of the Raleigh County Historical Society, and other community leaders wanted to preserve the site for Beckley’s future. But how should they go about that?
Then the general manager of the sanitary board, Jeremiah Johnson, told him, “You know, Tom, West Virginia University might be able to help us with their law clinic.”
“You’ll go down to it, and you don’t just leave. You kind of stay there a while.”—Tom Sopher, Beckley city councilman, president of the Raleigh County Historical Society
When law students and attorneys from WVU’s Land Use and Sustainable Development Clinic traveled to Beckley and sifted through land records, they found that Beckley had owned and continued to own the site, which was also the historic home of a gristmill once owned by the city’s founding family.
The team delivered an inch-thick folder of findings to Beckley, and within a short time civic groups have taken ownership of the property, organized a cleanup and are overflowing with ideas for the area that include a nature walk, an overlook, dog park, and Frisbee golf.
Sopher calls the space along Piney Creek a hidden gem; he didn’t know it existed until he became involved in protecting the watershed. And the heart of that gem is definitely the waterfalls, he said.
“You’ll go down to it, and you don’t just leave,” he said. “You kind of stay there a while.”
Beckley can have a beautiful park complete with ruins from a clan that made the city, preserved with the help of law students and attorneys.
“It’s all because of their work to make it so that it is the city’s property,” Sopher said of the clinic staff. “We really love them. They really, really helped us.”
Katherine Garvey directs the law clinic that so far has had about 35 projects in 20 towns across the state since it was formed in 2012. Sometimes students and attorneys investigate land records in courthouses, draft easements for land conservation, and other times they train officials and volunteers, assist with planning meetings, investigate legal solutions for resolving wastewater dilemmas and parse state code.
“I see it as a real skill and maybe an often unrecognized skill to become interested in the communities that they serve.” —Bob Johnson, Mayor, City of Richwood
The clinic’s goal is to help West Virginia towns and counties discover what they want to become and help them lay out a plan.
“We don’t go in there and say, ‘Your town should be doing this,’” Garvey said. “We act more as a facilitator and say, ‘What is it that your town wants to do? And we’ll help you legally put those elements in place.’”
Much of the clinic’s work is in land-use planning, particularly important since the state’s deadline for updating or creating comprehensive plans for communities is July 2014. Without a comprehensive plan, municipal zoning would be invalidated. But more than the ability to decide where businesses and homes should be, comprehensive plans instill a community vision.
“Bringing in a volunteer group that can help identify longer-term problems like dilapidated buildings, economic development and tourism, then having some strategies for how to address those issues will just increase the quality of life for that community,” Garvey said.
Ashley Carr, building code official for the City of Summersville, spoke with Nathan Fetty, managing attorney for the clinic, and asked the clinic to help with Summersville’s comprehensive planning. The existing plan dated back to 1965.
He enjoyed working with the clinic staff as people and appreciated the work they put in to help the existing consultants create the plan.
“Students were great setting up for the meetings, doing research,” he said. “It was a good experience all the way around.”
City of Richwood Mayor Bob Johnson had applied for a $10,000 grant last year to help with his city’s comprehensive planning. He did not receive the grant, but still had mountains of work ahead.
“The law clinic was a lifesaver in that respect,” Johnson said.
Whether the students or attorneys were from outside or inside West Virginia, they did something that meant a lot to Johnson. They incorporated themselves into the community.
“I see it as a real skill and maybe an often unrecognized skill to become interested in the communities that they serve,” he said.