WV's Eastern Panhandle coping with problems caused by growth

West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle is known for its historic charm and beauty.

It features the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers converging to form a stunning backdrop at Harpers Ferry, the site of John Brown’s raid on the U.S. Arsenal in 1859.

It also features rolling hills, pristine farms and quaint, clean communities, such as Charles Town and Shepherdstown. Is it any wonder D.C. suburbanites like it?

“When people come into our region, we want them to want to come back. We want the first impression to be good. We want them to see pastoral surroundings,” said Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson.

Mission accomplished. The first impressions have been so good that living in the Eastern Panhandle has become a trendy option for many who work an hour away in Washington, D.C. It’s become one of the fastest growing areas in the Bay watershed.

Doyle said he and other Eastern Panhandle lawmakers don’t want to stop this growth, but they do want the region to maintain its rural feel as the population grows.

Eastern Panhandle lawmakers used the legislative meetings held in Shepherdstown in November to alert their peers to the pressures of managing such growth.

“A lot of people seem to think growth is a luxury, but it’s not. It comes with its own set of problems,” said Delegate Vicki Douglas, D-Berkeley. “We have the same kinds of problems as the rest of the state, problems with infrastructure and roads.”

At a forum, several panhandle residents spoke in favor of a farmland preservation bill that would allow farmers to be paid not to sell portions of their farmland to developers. The bill was proposed by a group of Eastern Panhandle residents concerned about the number of subdivisions being built in Jefferson and Berkeley counties.

“We don’t want to control growth. We just want to be smart about it. With growth, you have more infrastructure and more schools. In Berkeley County, we’re going to need a school a year to keep up,” said Delegate John Overington, R-Berkeley.

“All you have to do is look at student enrollment figures. You can see that our area has most of the growth in the state,” he said.

Although West Virginia’s student population dropped by 5,373 students from 1997 to 1998, Berkeley County gained 825 students and Jefferson County gained 194 students.

A 10-year facilities plan recently proposed by Berkeley County school officials calls for the construction of 10 schools by 2010.

Delegate Dale Manuel, D-Jefferson, said the Eastern Panhandle’s problem is the “flip side” of the rest of the state’s problems.“We want the legislature to see firsthand what we’re facing here,” he said. “We all have similar problems. It’s just that our problems are related to too much growth.”

Elizabeth River pollution down, but bottom sediments still a problem

Water quality in Virginia’s Elizabeth River, one the most notoriously polluted rivers on the East Coast, has improved in the last decade, according a report.

The report released in November was commissioned by the Elizabeth River Project. The volunteer group of civic leader concluded that the dissolved oxygen that sustains fish and plants has increased since 1989, partly disproving the notion that the brown waters of the historic river through the industrial core of Hampton Roads are dead.

But the report did warn that muddy bottom sediments in the river remain dangerously polluted and could require millions of dollars to clean up.

The report revealed toxic effects from contaminated sediments on aquatic life at 21 of 23 stations — including all four sites on the river’s Western Branch, often considered the cleanest section.

In some Southern Branch “hot spots,” sediments were 463 times more toxic than those in the Chesapeake Bay. At one Southern Branch station, 92 percent of the fish showed pre-cancerous lesions in their livers, while 38 percent exhibited cancerous lesions.

The research involves intensive sampling of water, sediments and microscopic life at 175 stations. It costs $450,000 a year and includes scientists from Old Dominion University, the College of William and Mary and the U.S. Navy.

The volunteers who pushed the study — naturalists, government officials, military officers, and businessmen — met to discuss the report. They would like to continue the monitoring program, which is coordinated by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

While the group remains concerned about bottom sediments, the river’s dramatic improvement in water quality was good news. Scientists say 61 percent of the 46 water-quality trends they watch for in the Bay are improving in the Elizabeth, and none are getting worse.

By contrast, only 44 percent of these basic trends were improving in the James River and just 17 percent were up in the York River.

Scientists and officials credited the improvements to years of government regulation that has greatly curtailed direct flows of pollution into the river.

They also said stewardship is improving. “Public awareness seems to be way up,” said Bert Parolari, of the state Department of Environmental Quality. “There’s a greater consciousness about the effects of stormwater on the environment, about overfertilizing lawns and gardens. And there’s just better technology in use today.”

For example, Parolari said, the Hampton Roads Sanitation District is more efficient and innovative at removing nutrients from sewage that is later returned to the river as effluent. The sanitation agency now uses microscopic bugs to eat nitrogen and phosphorus at two of its treatment plants in the region, one in Norfolk and another in Suffolk, he said.

VA study touts ‘sensible growth’

Virginia should look more to the private sector to slow urban sprawl while also protecting landowners’ rights, according to a new study.

The study released Nov. 11 by the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy promotes “sensible growth” principles as an alternative to “smart growth” initiatives favored by environmentalists and fast-growing localities.

Legislators last winter shelved smart growth proposals to make it easier for localities to curb development in areas that lack adequate schools, roads and other public services. They also refused to force developers to help localities pay for new public services made necessary by home building.

Proposals to slow urban sprawl and ease traffic congestion are likely to be introduced again in the General Assembly session that begins Jan. 12.

“Some advocates of what is called ‘smart growth’ or ‘limited growth’ are looking to the government to solve the problem government helped to create,” said Michael Thompson, president of the institute.

He said “it is absolutely necessary for the private sector to be more involved in solving these issues since it is clear that government cannot do it alone.”

For example, the institute’s study suggests governments offer incentives for developers to incorporate classrooms into office buildings and lease the space to public schools. Parents and children could ride to work and school together, reducing traffic congestion.

The study also recommends incentives encouraging more companies to let employees work by computer and telephone at home. It says “telecommuting” could be increased from 11 percent of the workforce to 60 percent in traffic-choked northern Virginia.

Del. Riley E. Ingram, R-Hopewell, and co-chairman of the committee that reviewed smart growth bills in the last session, said he has too many questions about the institute’s proposals to say whether he could support them. He said problems are not bad enough to warrant immediate, drastic action. “Most counties would say they have things pretty much under control.”

The study was conducted by David Schnare, an attorney and environmental specialist for the EPA. Schnare also heads the environmental and land use committee for a coalition of 143 homeowners associations in western Fairfax County.

The Fairfax-based Thomas Jefferson Institute describes itself as a nonpartisan research and education foundation based on a philosophy of limited government, free enterprise and individual responsibility.

Rate of DE wetlands loss slowing

Wetlands are still disappearing under development in Delaware, but the rate of loss has slowed significantly, according to a preliminary state report.

While far from complete, the report shows improvement in the state’s protection of wetlands, said John Schneider, manager of watershed assessment for the Delaware Division of Water Resources.

From 1955 to 1981, Delaware lost about 1,600 acres of wetlands a year. Between, 1982 and 1992, the loss slowed to about 190 acres a year, according to comparisons of aerial photographs.

“Clearly, we’re doing a lot better job now than before. There’s no question about that,” Schneider said.

He cited the better protection of the wetlands through building regulations and careful planning of land use. Most of the wetland loss during the 10-year span under study was along the Delaware Bay and in northern New Castle County. Residential development accounted for 23 percent of the building that drained the wetlands.

The report does not take into account the last seven years of development, when Delaware saw a boom in new construction. That means the report won’t cover losses from new development along the coastal bays of Sussex County or in other wetlands areas, environmentalists said.

“There’s got to be wetlands loss there in those years,” said Grace Pierce-Beck, a lobbyist for the Delaware Audubon Society. “We have, at an alarming rate, lost our wetlands. I am just fully amazed that it’s only 200 acres a year. It’s got to be more.”